As bizarre as the following story may seem, it is one percent true. Not one of my finest hours perhaps, it may be one of the more entertaining.
Captain Berlitz of the Titanic
In 1970, in the midst of a bitterly cold German winter, I managed to sink both the Titanic and my standing within the family. The situation began, as do most journeys to Hell, with the best of intentions.
My father had just been stationed to Zweibrücken Air Force base, a fairly new American base near Saarbrucken. We all found ourselves in the position of mid-wifing the birth of this new base. As anyone who has grown up in the military can attest, it is very much a team effort.
Though we had a bowling alley, theater, and a small (very small) library, there was one amenity I very much felt the lack of - TV.
Listen, it was cold outside. And while I may not watch much television now, in 1970 I was a TV junkie. There were days when I would watch anything, as long as it was on the tube, and I could vegetate.
And I wasn’t one of the “Cool Kids,” something that bothered me at times, but something I have given many thanks for over the years since. I read a lot. I went to the movies. I watched TV. I soaked up American culture, even far from the shores of home.
When I say there was no TV, I mean there was no American TV, as in AFN (Armed Forces Network), the small network set up in Europe to service American bases. Now, to receive AFN, we a had to be hooked up to a special antenna, and it would take over a month (longer, actually) to set up. Cold turkey. Oh. no.
There just had to be a way around this situation. It presented itself to me in a spectacularly simple manner.
One day, in German class, our teacher, Mr. Waldman, was telling us about watching an old movie on a German TV station. He urged us all to watch the German television offerings at least once a week because it might help us with our own study of the language. He laughed and told us we could always watch American shows like Bonanza and Mannix if we didn’t want to tax ourselves too much.
Eureka! I had found it. We could watch German TV until our antenna was hooked up. There was just a slight hitch.
I was failing German. And not just failing; I was failing miserably. I was setting standards of failure for decades to come. If my parents knew just how poorly I was doing, they probably wouldn't let me watch TV in English, let alone another language.
But . . . they didn't know. While I was not averse to telling them how well I was doing in my other classes, I tended to gloss over my inadequacy in German. They’d find out soon enough, I reasoned.
Until then, however, I might be able to get just a little TV time, even if in another tongue.
“Listen, “ I said at dinner one night. “I'm doing well enough in German, that I could probably translate a little of what we see on TV. Why don’t we try it?”
My parents must have been as bored as I was because they readily agreed.
Now, in my defense, let me state that there is historical precedence for my actions. In England, in the 1700s, there lived a very successful confidence artist. At one point, he passed himself off as a Chief from a tropical island. He volunteered to teach the language to missionaries about to depart for the region. They felt it might be an advantage to learn the language since cannibals were reputed to inhabit some of the islands. He taught them a language, true, but not one connected to any tongue on this planet. The missionaries were never heard from after they arrived in the islands.
They may not have saved any souls, but they have survived to this as an entertaining historical footnote; should we all be so lucky.
Like him, I found that my game went over very well.
At that time, luckily for me, a lot of German programming was actually American series and films, “dubbed” into German. Hawaii Five-O, Ironside, Gunsmoke, were all on TV at that time. Even luckier, I had seen many of the episodes before we had left Missouri the previous year.
All I had to do was remember the big details, like who the villains were, and the small details would take care of themselves. To say that it was a smashing success would be an understatement. The TV was on all the tune, and I was having the time of my life. Oddly it was even helping my understanding of German, and my slowly raised from F to C.
But now we were getting into shows I hadn't seen before, and I was improvising like crazy. I soon found out that, be they German or American, most crime shows (especially at that time) are pretty simplistic, and that helped immensely. I just made up dialogue to fit whatever action was on the screen.
The only program I stayed away from was Mission: Impossible. If I had trouble following it in English, I certainly wasn't going to attempt it in another language, I was having tremendous fun though, feeling rather like Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights, only I knew I couldn't get caught.
And then one night my mother's favorite movie, A Night To Remember, came on. If you recall, this film was about the sinking of the Titanic.
This is what we call “irony.”
“I love this movie,” she said. “I've seen it four times.” I resolved to go all out and really give her a treat tonight.
If I had been a little less cocky, I would have stayed well away from the decks of that particular ship. When someone says, “I’ve seen it four times," it means that they've also listened to it four times.
I was on a roll that night, sometimes making up dialogue before the actors had finished speaking. I had one hell of a story going. Of course, it bore little resemblance to what had been written, but I thought my version was probably better.
I went on for about an hour, when I paused, and glanced at my mother. She was watching me, not the screen, and her eyes were narrowed so tightly that her pupils were like a dim memory.
She took a deep breath and said, “You’ve been making this up all along, haven’t you?”
Caught? Unmasked? I felt like the Batman about to be mangled by yet another villain’s death trap. There was only one chance at survival.
I smiled broadly. “It kept you happy, didn’t it?” As it turned out, it was entirely the wrong thing to say. At least Scheherazade would have only gotten her head cut off; she wouldn’t have had to live forever with the consequences of a badly told story. You’d have thought I was Jack the Ripper. My family had this odd thing about being hoodwinked. They couldn’t accept it in the spirit in which it had been given.
And after all this, I still made a D in German.
Grapevine - May 11, 1990