I was born during the Second World War and lived with my mother in an apartment building only a few hundred feet away from an ammunition factory in Karlsruhe, Germany.
One night, together with our neighbors and accompanied by the shrill sounds of alarm sirens, we were herded into a dark basement lit only by a candle. Soon afterward came the booming sound of falling bombs, followed by the shaking of the house. Above all was the sound of the sobbing adults and the crying of scared children.
“The Americans bomb the factory,” was whispered. My mother held me tight in her arms with each explosion. This went on for many weeks. Every night when the sirens sounded, we grabbed our blankets and mother’s little backpack. We went down into the dark and waited and cried and hoped.
Finally, the bombing stopped. The factory was destroyed but the apartment blocks were unscathed. Now the conversations in the hallways went something like this: “The Americans did spare us — they just hit the factory.”
This was my second time I heard about “the Americans.” Soon there would be a third time. The women’s conversations centered around the question of who would be the occupying army in our town, and around their horror at the danger of having to face abuse and rape at their hands.
“Let us pray that it will be the Americans,” my mother said. “They don’t rape.”
Although I did not understand this thing the women feared, nor who “the Americans” were, I folded my hands and prayed for their arrival with my mother and her friends.
A few days later they all jumped up to the windows and peaked between the curtains and cried out: “The Americans are coming!” We hugged each other. My mother held me up to the window so I could see the green trucks with a star rolling slowly into our street. The war was over, and the Americans had come.
Some months later the school opened. On the first day we ran excitedly to its doors. There in front of the school was the green truck with the big star on its door.
The men standing on the truck smiled. They filled each of our containers with hot chocolate and handed out raisin buns. The food was so welcome; we were all starving. I later learned the name for this program: “Quaker Food” — a part of the Marshall Plan.
All of these experiences left early imprints of America in my heart. America was something decent and generous, something good — something you could trust. The truck with the star and the hot chocolate would reliably show up every school day — rain or shine — for well over a year. During my later student years, I worked in the kitchen of an American military hotel in Wiesbaden as a dishwasher. This is where I met my first Native American. We became a team watching out for each other. I often wish that I had his name and address and could write to him. I would like him to know that he is still remembered.
I also recall my first meeting with an African American. I met him on a streetcar where he gave me my life’s first orange. Mother hung the orange on the Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve two families shared this gift received from this American soldier. I wish I could thank him and shake his hand.
After graduating from the University of Frankfurt with a degree in special education, I received a scholarship at the University of Minnesota. I spent the next 50 years working to improve the lives of severely handicapped children, terminally ill children, Native American children and children living in poverty in South America. I was honored to receive two Fulbright Fellowships for my work with special needs children in Ecuador. I tried to give back for all I had received.
Most importantly, I became a citizen of the United States of America.
The moral standards that came with the star on the truck door and the blue passport with the eagle have set a high bar and proved to be a challenge. I have had to learn that there is a painful side to my America that has to be carried.
But my America is generous and knows forgiveness and knows grace. It has the strength for self-correction. Therein lies my hope during challenging times.
From the bottom of my heart: Thank you, United States of America.
Uwe Stuecher is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.