1882 flophouse illustration - Everett Historical - Shutterstock

This Day in History – August 14th – Hijinx, Humor, and Insight

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NewsWhistle is pleased to feature Gary Jenneke’s “This Day In History” column.

You can read the original at Gary’s THIS DAY IN HISTORY blog — or scroll down to enjoy Gary’s unique look at life’s comings and goings.

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THIS DAY IN HISTORY… AUGUST 14th

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1965 – Berlin.

We had spent the summer hitchhiking across Europe. Rick and I had managed to hitch a ride through East Germany and were in West Berlin. Months on the road had left us short of money and we could no longer afford the luxury of a room. However we got lucky, or at the time thought we had, and found very inexpensive accommodations for the night. We had spent the evening visiting Otto and Erika — distant relatives of mine (who will be the topic of a future blog) — and while they were very welcoming, we found the scene too suffocating. They offered us a place to stay for the night but we, unwisely, turned it down.

Otto drove us to the Bahnhof station, where our bags were stored. The place we had rented for a few marks was next door. Otto was still suggesting we should stay with them for the night. It wasn’t too much later when I realized we should have taken him up on the offer. After taking leave of Otto, we retrieved our bags from the locker and walked across the street to, well, what was in reality, a mission, a flophouse. We immediately realized our mistake. Erika’s warm and clean apartment, albeit suffocating, suddenly looked much better. This place was one step up from the street, a last refuge for the desperate. Rick was obviously thinking along the same lines.  “Your relatives were nice, but…I just felt like I needed to get out.”  His voice had the tone of someone who was trying to explain a mistake.

We were issued a stained pillowcase, a musty blanket, and entered a room where the castoffs of German society took up nightly residence. Our ride was gone, it was too late, we were stuck. The room was large, open, and crammed with cots. It smelled of sweat, urine, vomit, and disinfectant. Rick and I found empty cots side by side and claimed them by sitting down. The men surrounding us were beaten, degraded, and moved with a slump-shoulder shuffle.  They ranged from middle-aged to elderly–Rick and I were by far the youngest. Nobody acknowledged another’s presence, yet everybody seemed acutely aware of everybody else. There was no talking; an oppressed silence dominated the room. Overhead fluorescent lighting did little to soften the harsh setting. Many of the men wore suits that were old and threadbare, but still a link to a more dignified past. There were no long drab coats or wild, bushy beards and hair. Although gray stubble coarsened the features of some, most of the men somehow managed clean-shaven faces. The German downtrodden were making an attempt at keeping up appearances.

There seemed to be equal elements of danger and vulnerability in the room. There were a few men who, at some point in the past, had obviously vacated the restrictive confines of rational thought.

“Ah, I think we got some crazies,” I whispered to Rick.

Rick nodded. “Got an idea,” he said as he dug into his suitcase. “I brought some extra shoelaces along.”

Extra shoelaces! I was amazed. I hadn’t even thought to bring a jacket for the summer.

Rick handed me a shoelace and kept one. I understood his intent. He tied one end of the shoelace to his wrist and the other end to the handle of his suitcase.

“Gives us a fighting chance to keep our stuff.” 

There was an announcement at the entrance of the room, and then the lights went out. I took off my shoes, socks and jeans, and stuck my wallet and passport inside the waistband of my underpants. I accepted the likelihood that I was going to be bitten by bedbugs.

I was soon surrounded by a cacophony of deep breathing, hacking, coughing, wheezing, and snoring.  Even after my eyes adjusted, I couldn’t see much because the room was so dark. A shaft of light reached out from a bathroom on the far side of the room. The only window was a dirty skylight that sucked in a hazy glow from a half moon. I couldn’t sleep, no, that wasn’t right, I didn’t want to sleep. We had made a bad decision but instead of lamenting it, I was almost savoring being in this awful place. I had started off the summer wanting to step outside the conventions of the familiar, wanting to experience something different in life.  With that as a parameter, the trip so far qualified as a success. We had had encounters I couldn’t have even imagined at the beginning of the summer. And, as long as it didn’t become a frequent occurrence, every young man should spend at least one night in a flophouse.

Even with everybody, or most everybody asleep, the room was not quiet. And it grew steadily louder. There was tossing and turning as men struggled to escape to a sweeter sanctuary.  Rhythmic squeaking of springs as other men, even in these dire conditions, sought a different relief. The greatest noise, however, came from those already asleep. I had noticed that most of those in the mission were in their late forties or early fifties. I speculated that twenty-five years earlier, given their age, they could have been the very ones who victoriously goose-stepped their way across Europe. And twenty years ago stumbled back to Germany in defeat. As the night wore on, my assumptions seemed more correct. No language skills were necessary to understand that the trauma of war was announcing its presence.

A man mumbled in his sleep, a tremulous whine of fear rising. The thin-pitched wail ended with a gasp as the man woke and escaped his terror. I heard deep anxious breaths being sucked in as the man, conscious now, fought to regain whatever fragile grip he held in the world. Another man on the other side of me acted out a similar performance.

Rick was snoring softly so he missed the action.  Despite the distractions I soon fell asleep myself.

A scream woke me in the middle of the night, a loud, wretched scream of terror. I heard another man sobbing uncontrollably. The remnants of Hitler’s once mighty armies were struggling desperately to make it through another flophouse night. A different kind of Blitzkrieg was taking place, a Blitzkrieg of PTSD.

I thought about a story my father had told me. Dad was still in the states, at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.  He was walking across the base, past a row of tents, when he saw someone he knew, a casual acquaintance from a neighboring town. He stopped to talk and found the man depressed, distraught even.

“I’m not going to make it.” He lamented to my father.

“Come on,” my father said.  “We’re not even overseas yet, you can’t think that way.

The young man said a strong feeling had seized him, telling him he wasn’t going to survive the war.  His premonition was correct; he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

As I lay awake, listening to the war being relived, I wondered if one of the men in this room was responsible for that young man’s death. Surrounded by the hated enemy, evil personified in the war movies I had watched as a child, I felt only compassion. All traces of the German storm trooper had long vanished. I thought about the terrified young man in my father’s story. I listened to the sounds of trauma in this room and wondered if leaders of nations ever considered those kinds of  scenarios before sending their young off to war. No, of course not.

I’m a dove, not a hawk, when it comes to war. I see it as a dubious and ludicrous path to peace. I became fervently anti-war during the Vietnam years. A night in a flophouse in Berlin just might have been the first step in that direction.

My first act when I awoke the next morning was to tug on the shoelace. The reassuring weight of my suitcase on the other end brought relief. Men were rolling out of their cots all around me, hollow eyes on the floor, not looking at anybody else.  Rick and I used the bathroom facilities as quickly as possible and escaped from our brief descent into someone else’s hell.

Right now America is engaged in endless war. It’s acceptable because it does not touch the lives of the vast majority of Americans. And it will continue to be okay because there is no way for that vast majority to experience what happens in the middle of the night. They hold up their end of the bargain by dutifully thanking someone for their service.

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ABOUT GARY JENNEKE

At various junctures of his life, Gary has been an indifferent grade school student, poor high school student, good Navy radioman, one-time hippie, passable college student, inveterate traveler, dedicated writer, miscast accountant (except for one interesting stint at a Communist café), part-time screenwriting teacher, semi-proud veteran, unsuccessful retiree and new blogger.

You can reach him at gary@newswhistle.com.

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CREDITS

The above information was sourced from the following sites and newspapers.

Sources:

Gary Jenneke

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We’d also like to thank the following photographers and videographers for the use of their images:

*  Lead-In Image (Art) –  Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com – “Interior view of New York City lodging house, a five-cent den on Pearl Street, offered bunks or the floor with a central furnace for warmth. 1882. – Illustration.”

1882 flophouse illustration - Everett Historical - Shutterstock - embed

* Outro (Man-In-Museum Cartoon) – SkyPics Studio / Shutterstock.com

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OTHER DAYS IN HISTORY …

December 2

* December 5

* December 9

December 11

December 12

* December 15

December 16

December 18 

December 22

December 23

December 24

December 28

* December 30

* January 3

January 4

January 6

January 7

January 10

* January 11

* January 14

January 15

January 16

January 19

January 21

January 22

January 24

January 25

January 29

January 30

February 1

February 3 

February 5

February 6

* February 9

* February 10

* February 11

February 14

February 15

February 18

February 20

February 21

February 24

February 25

February 28

March 2

March 3

March 6

March 9

March 10

March 12

* March 14

March 16

March 17

March 19

March 20

March 21

March 23

March 26

March 27

March 29

March 31

April 2

April 3

April 6

April 7

April 11

* April 12

April 13

April 18

April 19

April 22

April 23

April 25

April 28

April 29

May 2

May 3

* May 4

May 6

May 8

May 9

May 10

May 13

* May 17

May 18

May 19

May 23

* May 24

May 26

* May 28

May 29

June 1

June 2

June 3

June 8

June 9

June 10

June 15

June 17

June 18

June 19

June 21

June 23

June 24

June 28

June 29

June 30

July 2

* July 3

July 6

July 12

July 13

July 15

July 18

July 19

July 22

July 23

July 25

July 27

July 30

* July 31

August 3

August 4

August 7

August 10

August 16

August 17

August 21

August 24

August 25

* August 28

August 31

September 2

September 5

September 6

September 8

September 11

September 12

September 15

September 16 

September 17

September 21

September 23

September 24

September 25

September 28

September 30

October 1

October 3

October 7

October 10

October 12

October 14

* October 16

October 18

October 24

October 25

October 27

October 28

October 30

November 3

* November 4

November 5

November 8

November 9

November 10

November 13

November 14

November 16

* November 17

November 19

November 20

November 23

November 28

November 30

* Stay tuned for more!

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