Thursday, May 30, 2024

20 Years: Free Excerpt from Back in the DDR


This year marks my 20th year as a professional writer. Over the course of 2024, I'll be sharing a few of those offerings you may have missed along the way.

This week in 1976, there was a bombing at the IG Farben Building/Complex in Frankfurt, West Germany. In real life, my father was there when this explosion occurred, and for several hours we had no idea if he was OK or not. I incorporated this event into the pages of my coming-of-age novel "Back in the DDR"

That portion of the novel is excerpted here...

When it got dark, and we got the fire going, it was really peaceful out in nature. The fire crackled, the crickets chirped, and the frogs croaked. Major Starkey made dinner for all of us. Hot dogs on sticks have never tasted better.

               At one point David wowed all of us with something from his wallet. The US Mint has just started issuing $2 bills. He passed his around the campfire.

               “Woah, Thomas Jefferson,” I said.

               “OK boys,” the Major said, holding back a yawn after handing David his $2 bill back, “I’m hitting the hay. You can stay up a little later, but I want everyone in the sack by 2200 hours. Got it? The alarm goes off at 0600. Mike and Mark are in charge of putting out the fire.”

               “Yes sir,” they both replied.

               Major Starkey disappeared inside the tent. The five of us exhaled. From that point on, everything we said was whispered.

               “Are you guys going to crap in that hole?” I asked.

               Mark and Mike both gave the thumbs-down sign. Dwayne and David whispered some variation of “not a chance in hell.”

               “Dwayne,” Mark whispered. “Do you still have those cans of food?”

               Dwayne nodded. Mark’s voice got even quieter.

               “Do you want to see something really cool?”


               “Go get one of your cans and bring it out here,” Mark said.

               Dwayne tiptoed back to the non-Starkey tent and rustled around inside for a few moments. When he came back out, he was carrying one of the cans of beans. He handed it to Mark, who threw it directly into the fire.

               “What are you doing?” David whispered.

               “Just keep an eye on that can,” Mark whispered. “It’s going to get hotter and hotter. The pressure inside the can is going to keep on building because there is no way for the ingredients to escape. You know what will happen?”

               David smiled. He was following along. “It will explode.”

               Matching evil grins on Mark’s and Mike’s faces confirmed his theory.

               We watched the can turn black and expand for a few minutes.

               “Let’s get behind the tents,” Mike said. “Just in case the explosion sends metal shrapnel through the air.”

               I felt like we were in a war zone as we hunkered down behind the non-Starkey tent. We could hear the can making weird noises. It felt like the time was near. Another few clinking noises of the metal expanding. And then it happened.


               Baked beans flew through the air. We heard some of them splash into the river, and we saw some of them splatter the nearby trees. It was glorious.

               Unfortunately, it was also loud.

               Major Starkey came out of the Starkey tent dressed only in his white underpants.

               “What the hell are you boys doing out here?” he demanded. He lifted his right foot in the air and stared at it. “What the hell did I just step in?”

               “Baked beans,” Mark replied.

               “God bless it,” he said. “How many times have I asked you boys not to blow up the provisions!”

               “Sorry dad.”

               “To bed, all of you.”

               When I nestled into my sleeping bag that night, I had a big smile on my face. We have three more nights, and Dwayne has three more cans.

Wonder what the Spaghetti-Os will sound like.




In the middle of the night I heard the first drops. There’s nothing quite like the sound of rain falling on a canvas tent. It has a way of sharpening the senses. I rustled Dwayne awake.

               “It’s raining,” I said.

               “I hear it,” he replied.

               “Tomorrow’s going to suck,” I said.

               “I know,” he replied.

               We awoke a few hours later to a torrential downpour. The plan had been to wake up at 0600, make breakfast, pack up, and resume our canoe trip. This didn’t sound like a good plan anymore. The non-Starkeys were not water-proofed, and we had no idea what to do.

               “Boys are you awake?” Major Starkey called from the next tent.

               “Yes sir,” David replied.

               “Is the water coming into your tent yet?” the Major asked.

               I didn’t see any, and didn’t feel any, so I responded in the negative.

               “OK, good,” he said. “My boys and I will take down our tent, pack up our stuff, load up the canoe, and then we’ll help you with your stuff. In the meantime, pack up your backpacks.”

               “Maybe we should just stay here until the rain stops,” I suggested.

               “Negative,” Major Starkey replied. “The river is rising, and we’ll be underwater in a few hours if we don’t keep on moving.”

               “I guess they’ve never heard of levees here,” Dwayne muttered.

               I had heard that word once before, but never really considered what it was. I only knew that Don McLean drove his Chevy to the levee and the levee was dry. Dwayne explained the whole levee concept to me. Growing up in Louisiana along the Mississippi, he knew all about the embankments along the river that helped prevent flooding. It did seem strange that there weren’t any along the Lahn River, but then again, this area has been around for centuries. They must not need them.

               By the time we got into the canoe, we were soaked to the bone. So was all of our stuff. David’s scout shirt clung to him like it was his skin. Dwayne’s corduroy pants were no longer beige. I was slightly less wet because I had shelled out the extra $1.50 for the Boy Scout baseball cap. It was keeping the rain out of my eyes. Meanwhile, the Starkeys were wearing rain ponchos over their scout uniforms and seemed unfazed by the situation.

               In the morning Major Starkey was still trying to pretend like it was fun to canoe in a rising river that moved much faster than yesterday. By lunchtime he was looking at his wet map, trying to figure out which town was going to be our stopping point. He decided we would stop in Limburg and try to find a hotel. The tents were not usable under the circumstances.

               The rain was still coming down, but we saw the town in the distance. A beautiful castle or cathedral was beckoning us. Major Starkey had done his research.

               “That’s the Limburger Dom,” he told us. “If you’re ever lucky enough to get a 1000 DM bill, it’s on the back. I visited this town when we first moved here. Great museums. The old town is from the medieval times. Some parts of the castle are almost a thousand years old.”

               “Is there where Limburger cheese comes from?” David asked. I was thinking the same thing. The Little Rascals were always talking about how disgusting Limburger cheese is.

               “I don’t think so,” Major Starkey replied. “There’s a Limburg in Holland too. The Netherlands has more of a cheese culture.”

               We found a place near the bridge to dock our canoe and made our way into the town.

               “I stayed in a hotel near here,” Major Starkey told us.

               He trudged the five boys through the cobblestone streets, and we entered the lobby of a hotel in the shadow of the Limburger Dom. The hotel was opulent. We were not.

               “May I help you?” the lady at the desk asked the Major in English. I guess it was pretty obvious that we were Americans.

               He explained our situation to the lady, asked if we could have two rooms for the night, if they had driers for the non-Starkeys to dry the rest of our clothes, and if they had robes we could wear while the clothes were being dried. After getting answers in the affirmative, he looked me in the eye.

               “What’s the Boy Scout motto?” He asked.

               “Be Prepared,” I answered.

               “Were you prepared?” he asked me and Dwayne.

               “No sir,” we replied.

               “Were you prepared?” he asked David.

               “No sir,” David replied.

               “I’m charging your parents for this room,” the Major said, “and any costs incurred laundering your stuff.”

               “Yes sir,” we replied.

               Mike and Mark were smirking behind his back. They were clearly enjoying this.




Our room had two single beds pushed together to make it into a bigger bed, with two huge feather comforters. This was going to be much more comfortable than the floor of the tent last night, even if the three of us had to figure out a way to fit into the bed and share the blankets.

               The view from our hotel window was really interesting. We could see portions of the medieval wall that used to surround the town, and the quaint half-timber buildings on the other side of the wall, plus the red and white St. George’s Cathedral. On a sunny day, the view probably took your breath away. Today, it was gray and rainy and foggy. It was like being on the set of Young Frankenstein.

               The robes they gave us were way too big, especially for Dwayne and me. David almost looked normal, so he volunteered to go back into the lobby and see if he could find anything interesting for us to do while we waited for our clothes. When he came back to the room, his face was pale. He was holding a newspaper in his hand.

               “The IG Farben building has been bombed,” he said.

               “What’s that?” Dwayne asked.

               “That’s where our dads work,” I said.

               “You can read German, right?” David asked as he handed me the paper. “What does this article say?”

               I translated as I read it.

               “Two time-bombs exploded at US Army headquarters in Frankfurt, formerly known as the IG Farben building. At least seventeen people are wounded, a few of them critically. The victims are American Army officers and civilians, who were dining at the Officers Club within the complex.”

               “That’s where our dads eat lunch every day,” David said.

               “Oh my God,” Dwayne said. “What time of day did this happen?”

               I skimmed the text looking for an answer. I didn’t like what I found.


               “Oh my God,” Dwayne said again.

               David was quiet. Tears were forming in his eyes behind his thick glasses. I kept on reading, hoping for good news.

               “Violence was expected when Ulrike Meinhof died in prison under mysterious circumstances. The Red Army Faction had bombed this facility two years earlier, claiming that it housed the CIA, and that it was instrumental in the war crimes of Vietnam. Interior Minister Werner Maihmfee said that ‘pseudo-political motivations are once again assumed’ and that three people are in police custody. None of the victims have been named. Twelve of the seventeen are in the hospital, and three of them are in intensive care.”

               David went straight to the phone and picked it up.

               “Major Starkey said ‘no phone calls’” I pointed out.

               David didn’t listen. He dialed his home number and waited. And waited. Seven rings.

               “Nobody is answering,” he said. I could see the panic starting to form in his eyes.

               “Let me call my house,” I said, grabbing the phone from his hand. I dialed my home number and waited. And waited. Five rings. No answer. Six rings. No answer.

               “Oh my God,” I said.

               I gently placed the receiver on the phone.

               “Do you know your dad’s work number?” Dwayne asked both of us.

               Neither of us did.