This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Cloudsmith.
Alonzo brought his wife inside the house where he’d found a space to rent just before her arrival. This was home while they waited for an available apartment on the base. The landlords were locals — the Muellers, a couple who lived in the house with their teenage son and daughter. They rented out the top level of their home to servicemen.
Alonzo and Sal Waller, one of the other Black officers, had decided to share the two-bedroom rental since Sal’s wife Peggy had also recently arrived from the states and they were also waiting for military housing on the base.
The rental was open and airy with a small kitchen and a shared bathroom in the center of a common area. Both bedrooms were situated on opposite ends of the space and were closed off by long curtains that ran the width of each room. It wasn’t an ideal arrangement but it was temporary and would have to do.
The husbands had done their best with selecting a place, considering there were landlords in town who turned away Black renters. However, this didn't reflect the German people overall. Mostly, they were accepting of others — citizens of a country struggling to reckon with the past atrocities inflicted by Nazi-ism.
Anyway, the flimsy curtain wasn’t the rental’s biggest downside for Betty. It was the family’s dog. She didn’t know what kind of dog it was, but he was big and she was afraid of him. Much to her displeasure, the whatever-it-was dog liked to stretch out on the porch right in the path to the front door, forcing her to tiptoe around the back of the house to get inside.
Betty and Peggy became fast friends, spending much time together while their husbands were at work. Peggy was a hoot. She was warm and quite amusing. Her big eyes got even bigger when she told a funny story and she was the perfect complement to Sal, who like his wife, was always cracking jokes. If you didn’t know him, you’d never believe how brilliant he was or that he spoke multiple languages.
The two couples had a grand time together, sometimes going out on double-dates and exploring the nearby villages. And back at the house, they found the Muellers to be especially kind and engaging, even initiating an occasional game of Canasta with their American tenants — an extraordinary mix of people enjoying an ordinary card game. It was wonderfully unexpected. But needless to say, Alonzo and Betty looked for opportunities to get out of the house and spend time alone.
They escaped into town often and visited the annual Christmas markets or Weihnachtsmärkte. These spectacular, outdoor shopping venues came alive at night with dazzling lights, live music, food, and traditional mulled wine. You could find everything you needed for the holidays, especially gifts and Christmas decorations.
The German’s extreme love of the holiday season was magical and contagious. While the Muellers’ Christmas tree was indeed lovely, Betty couldn’t wait for the time when she and Alonzo could trim their own tree with the brightly-colored glass ornaments she’d seen. And when they got back to the states, maybe they would even visit family and friends on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts, like the German people do.
Aside from exploring the bustling markets, the couple dined at quaint restaurants and went to clubs that hosted live bands. They even took in performances at a nearby opera house — anywhere where they could simply enjoy each other’s company.
Theirs was a romance that neither one took for granted.
They’d been apart for three years before their wedding day. Yet, somehow their written letters brought them together at the altar, only to have the Atlantic Ocean come between them for five months. Now that they were truly a couple, they must have been tempted to pinch each other to make sure it all wasn't just a dream.
It didn’t take long for Betty to notice the looks she was getting from many of the townspeople. They weren’t menacing stares — she’d seen enough of those from white people in America to know the difference. Rather, these stares were filled with an awe-like curiosity and it was amusing that some of the German men seemed to be admiring her.
It never dawned on Betty that German people rarely saw Black women. Because of the post-war military occupation, Germans were used to seeing Black men, soldiers who’d been stationed there but a beautiful woman with melanin-drenched skin and mesmerizing hips like Betty’s was an anomaly.
Because of her rarity, some of the townspeople went out of their way to be kind and helpful — at times, almost too helpful but Betty welcomed the attention. It was the type of acknowledgment that white Americans never gave her and it was a relief to move freely around her new host-country and not have to constantly be on her guard.
After several weeks of living in their rented space, it was time to say farewell to the Muellers when a two-bedroom apartment became available on the base. Lt. and Mrs. Smith left Kaiserslautern and settled into their military digs. They were soon followed by Sal and Peggy.
Betty was surprised to find the complex was integrated — mostly white families with a handful of Black families mixed in. Why wasn’t it that way back home? If military communities were integrated, why not every American community?
The folks back in D.C. would never believe she’d just spent almost three months living in the home of a white family; that Blacks were treated splendidly in Germany, and that they moved into an integrated apartment building on a U.S. military base.
That was definitely something to write home about. Yet, Betty would soon discover that U.S. military bases were complicated places…