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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

December 2003

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One more of the many installments we have been privileged to present to our readers from the rich store of experiences shared by our retired Foreign Service colleagues. The gist here: "You wanted maybe a piano that plays?"—Ed.

Living with Terror

The telephone rang in my office one morning in December 1959. My mentor and friend Elwood Williams asked me, “How would you like to go to Berlin?” There was a sudden vacancy to be filled in the Political Section of the U.S. Mission Berlin, and Elwood – a legend in his own time and long the “king-maker” in the State Department’s Office of German Affairs – thought I might be a good candidate, even though I was still a Foreign Service Reserve officer with little hope of making the jump to the career officer corps.

I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The previous several years had been financially very difficult and professionally frustrating for me, with a terribly boring job in the Department’s Bureau for Intelligence and Research and no hope of ever getting out of the rut. Now, one phone call had brightened my outlook and changed my life. My whole family was full of enthusiasm and energy as we prepared for the big move, found tenants to rent our house, applied for passports and underwent the required physical examinations.

Our two older children, Paula and Peter, had a vague idea of the great adventure which lay ahead and were excited; little Katie (1_) was too young for anything other than to get terribly upset when she came home from spending the day at a friend’s house and found the house totally bare of furniture and everything else that had looked like home to her. A peaceful and sunny child up to that moment, she burst into loud and bitter tears and did not stop crying for the next two months.

Our last night on American soil was spent on the living room couches of the friends who had kindly offered to drive us to National Airport the next morning. Once arrived in New York, the six of us – my wife, my mother, the three children and I – boarded a Lufthansa Constellation, a four-engine propeller-driven airliner. Since the journey to Berlin would exceed 18 hours, we were entitled to First Class and got ready to enjoy the luxury, the free drinks, the roast duck with chestnut puree... But it was not to be. Two hours out from (then still) Idlewild Airport, Paula and Katie displayed unmistakable symptoms of mumps. This had quite a dampening effect on the joys of First Class travel.

In temporary quarters at the Berlin officers’ club, we found that our rooms were located in the guest house across the street, necessitating several trips a day across Garystrasse with whatever meals our poor children could eat. We lived at the officers’ club, the former Harnack House (named for Leopold von Harnack, late rector and professor of theology at the Berlin University) for several weeks. Over strenuous protests and loud complaints on his part, I enrolled my five-year-old son Peter at a German kindergarten operated by the near-by Jesu-Christi-Kirche. Once he had acquired a little German girlfriend with thick blond pigtails, however, he resigned himself to his situation and began to learn German at an impressive speed. Paula, seven, went off to the Defense Department school; a year or two later she and Peter would be chosen to attend the new experimental, bilingual Deutsch-Amerikanische Schule, renamed John F. Kennedy-Schule in 1963. And poor little Katie kept on crying.

Our mother, father and host for everything in Berlin was the United States Army. “USBER,” the State Department mission, came under the U. S. Commander Berlin, a two-star general. We had to look to the military for all our logistical support. We were issued ID cards, PX cards, commissary cards, Class VI (liquor store) cards, and so forth. The Army assigned us our housing and furnished our houses with standard overstuffed furniture, sets of china made by Rosenthal, identical glassware, flatware, etc. etc. On the inside, all our houses looked exactly alike, so that when you went visiting, you felt instantly at home.

My wife quickly discovered that without me, she was a non-person. Every piece of paper she needed had to be signed by me, the head of the household and her master. An independent- minded woman, she quite resented this. When our ninth wedding anniversary rolled around a month after we had arrived in Berlin, she signed her card to me “your dependent wife.”

Life in the bosom of the Army had its surprising and amusing moments. To wit: In order to know what to do with us Foreign Service types, the military had to assign us equivalent military ranks. Thus, upon my arrival in Berlin, I became a major. When I was promoted a couple of years later, I rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the eyes of the Army. I did not think about this until one morning when my wife phoned me with the glad tidings that Quarter master had delivered a piano to our house. I discovered that officers with the rank of light colonel and above were entitled to pianos; those of lower rank were not. My wife was delighted until she sat down to play and found that half the keys were dead and the rest were out of tune.

She phoned Louie. A Defense Department civilian, Louie wielded awesome power in the Quartermaster’s office; it was he who decided who would get what, and of what quality. We, his wards, played up to him accordingly. My wife said, “Louie, thank you for the piano, but it doesn’t work!”

“Mrs. Heichler, you wanted maybe a piano that plays?” answered Louie.

“Why, is there any other kind?”

“Mrs. Heichler, most of these officers’ wives just want the piano to display their rank, and for a place to put their potted plants. But if you really want a good piano, I’ll be happy to find you one.”

And so it was done; the men from Quartermaster delivered a handsome upright in gleaming dark wood and full working condition and took away the old one. Paula and Peter started lessons right away; Peter still shudders when reminded of Herr Beck, his stern Teutonic piano teacher.

One final note: Having once attended rabbinical school, Louie of the Quartermaster department also served as the unofficial rabbi of the Berlin American community, and in that capacity he buried my mother when she passed away in 1965, our last year in Berlin.


The author retired as a minister-counselor in the U. S. Foreign Service in 1986 after a career spanning thirty-two years. Other than Berlin and Washington, he had seven posts abroad.

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