I spent Christmas of 2017 alone, camped out in a Spartan hotel room outside of Stuttgart, Germany.  I was there for 3 weeks.  Work stuff.  Patch Barracks.  Panzer Kaserne.  Kelley Barracks.  Since I married Judy in 1985, we have spent every Christmas together.  Until now.

Spawned by a request from upper management, the trip came together in a week.  It was a lot of hoops to get over there, and the older I get, the more I resent having to jump through them.  Terrorism has taken all the fun out of traveling.

When I arrived on a Sunday morning at the Stuttgart airport, there was a shortage of cars, so my rental was upgraded to an Audi with an onboard navigation system.  Lots of bells and whistles.  The car had kick – it accelerated without resistance and braked on a dime.  Driving intimidated me a bit, especially on work days in rush-hour bumper-to-bumper situations that were often hampered by bad weather.

My hotel room wasn’t much comfort.  Spartan equates to 2 single hard beds, 2 bath towels, a cramped shower that peed on you, 2 plastic cups, dim lighting, and only 2 English-speaking channels on the TV – CNBC and Bloomberg – business channels.  So if you wanted to hear stock quotes all day, or get schooled in bitcoins, this was the room for you.

I spent a lot of time writing in longhand with German TV shows on in the background.

The hotel did have an impressive breakfast buffet layout each day.  I’ll give them that.  It was quite good.  But they only put out breakfast.  There was no hotel restaurant.

The work was taxing.  For the first two weeks, I went back to my room each night exhausted.

I made friends with the folks at a primo Italian restaurant that I could walk to from my hotel.  But I had to be careful with that.  Too much heavy food, too much beer.  Too much wine.  Too much Fanta.  At the end of my first week I looked like King Henry the VIII.

The height of my first weekend break was washing my clothes at a decrepit coin-op laundry at Kelley Barracks.  Out of 14 washing machines, 9 were temporarily out of order.  4 of the 10 dryers were in the same condition.  Two women had control of the machines – washing everything from clothes to duvet covers.  It took me 2 ½ hours to wash 2 small loads.

My second break was Christmas weekend.  On Saturday the 23rd, I needed to get out of the room.  I went on a daytrip.  The voice-commanded super-sophisticated GPS and I got lost – 60 kilometers of going back and forth, pulling over repeatedly trying to correct it because it wasn’t understanding my pronunciations.  When I was the most frustrated – stuck out in the middle of farm lands with no signs around, I doubled down on stupid by just pressing buttons on the steering wheel.  I had no idea what they did and the manual was all in German.  Important safety tip:  If you have no idea what the buttons do, don’t press them.

The GPS then refused to obey any commands which included providing my hotel location.  I couldn’t even get back to my starting point.

I yelled MF several times.

Deep breaths.


I’d already screwed it up, so why not press some more buttons and talk to the GPS in a deeper, more stern voice.  It came back to life and started obeying commands.

After a while, I relaxed.  Drove without the GPS.  I read the signs.  And I got to my destination – Rothenburg ob der Tauber, home of the “walled city” – well known for its medieval town completely surrounded by a thick stone wall.  It is a throwback in time.  Like something out of a fairy tale complete with a Christmas market.

I wandered through twisted cobblestoned streets and alleys.  It was more than my eyes could take in.  After buying some gifts to take home, I paused on the stone steps of a church, shoulder-to-shoulder with Germans and tourists alike, listening to a large costumed band playing Christmas songs.

I drove 90 minutes back to my hotel in a state of calm.

When I walked into the hotel lobby, the guy who runs the desk stopped me.  He was on his way out to the store and wanted to know if he could buy me something special to cook for my breakfast on the 24th.  I told him the buffet was fine.  They insisted.

“No, everything you do is perfect.  No complaints.”

The Germans celebrate Christmas more on the 24th than they do the 25th.  The 24th is the most important day to them.  And the hotel staff was distressed that I was far away from home and not with my family.

When I came down for breakfast on the 24th, I was alone.  The hotel had cleaned out.  The guy from the desk asked where I was sitting and I pointed to my table as I loaded up a plate of food.  When I got to the table, they’d left me a split of champagne alongside a fluted glass, and a 3-inch-high chocolate Santa wrapped in foil.  After I was seated, the desk guy and 2 of the women who worked the desk at night came over to wish me a Merry Christmas.

After breakfast, I went to my room to do some writing.  Later in the afternoon, I decided I might as well do my laundry.  So I drove to the 24-hour coin-op place on Kelley again.

With the exception of a washer and a dryer, all the machines broken from the week before had been repaired.  And unlike my previous visit, no one was hogging the machines.  I was all alone on Christmas Eve doing my small loads of colored clothes and whites, writing in my spiral notebook.

Even though the Germans shut everything down from the evening of the 23rd through the 25th, a few gas stations remain open.  I stopped at an Aral station and was delighted to find they had pastry and sandwich sections inside where you paid for your gas.

I had a very tasty sandwich on Christmas Eve while I sat in my room watching a station showing American movies back-to-back throughout the holiday weekend, albeit in German.  It was an odd assortment.  All movies I’d seen which was good because I already knew the storylines.  The FlintstonesHarry Potter.  Even Titanic.  And may I say “I am the king of the world!” loses something in the translation.

Being alone at Christmas sucked.

During my last week of work, while waiting on someone in the hallway of a building at Kelley Barracks, I took note of a framed picture and a write-up posted on a wall I had walked by repeatedly during the previous two weeks.  The display was the only thing on the wall and wasn’t much bigger than a vinyl album cover.  It was a picture of a soldier – youthful, grinning.  Jonah Kelley.  The guy the base is named after.  Medal of Honor winner.

You don’t always want to be a Medal of Honor winner, because chances are if you have one, you’re already dead.

This is the text of Jonah Kelley’s citation:

In charge of the leading squad of Company E, he heroically spearheaded the attack in furious house-to-house fighting.  Early on 30 January, he led his men through intense mortar and small arms fire in repeated assaults on barricaded houses.  Although twice wounded, once when struck in the back, the second time when a mortar shell fragment passed through his left hand and rendered it practically useless, he refused to withdraw and continued to lead his squad after hasty dressings had been applied.  His serious wounds forced him to fire his rifle with 1 hand, resting it on rubble or over his left forearm.  To blast his way forward with hand grenades, he set aside his rifle to pull the pins with his teeth while grasping the missiles with his good hand.  Despite these handicaps, he created tremendous havoc in the enemy ranks.  He rushed l house, killing 3 of the enemy and clearing the way for his squad to advance.  On approaching the next house, he was fired upon from an upstairs window.  He killed the sniper with a single shot and similarly accounted for another enemy soldier who ran from the cellar of the house.  As darkness came, he assigned his men to defensive positions, never leaving them to seek medical attention.  At dawn the next day, the squad resumed the attack, advancing to a point where heavy automatic and small arms fire stalled them.  Despite his wounds, S/Sgt. Kelley moved out alone, located an enemy gunner dug in under a haystack and killed him with rifle fire.  He returned to his men and found that a German machinegun, from a well-protected position in a neighboring house, still held up the advance.  Ordering the squad to remain in comparatively safe positions, he valiantly dashed into the open and attacked the position single-handedly through a hail of bullets.  He was hit several times and fell to his knees when within 25 yards of his objective; but he summoned his waning strength and emptied his rifle into the machinegun nest, silencing the weapon before he died.  The superb courage, aggressiveness, and utter disregard for his own safety displayed by S/Sgt. Kelley inspired the men he led and enabled them to penetrate the last line of defense held by the enemy in the village of Kesternich.

I really had to stop and look at those words and let them sink in.

Jonah Kelley, known as Eddie or Ed by his family and friends, was born and raised in West Virginia.  He had 2 sisters, but he was his parents’ only son.  He played football and basketball in high school.  He was a Boy Scout and a Methodist who regularly attended church.  He went to college, but didn’t finish because he got drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943.

He was 21 when he died.  Jonah Kelley never got to live the 40+ years I’ve lived since I was 21.  He didn’t get to have his own family.  He missed out on a lot of things that most of us take for granted.  And he did that for people like you and me.  You can argue the politics of wars Americans have been involved in, but you can’t argue the sacrifices.

Even though I enlisted during the end of the Vietnam war, I was in no danger of going.  They were drawing troops down at that point.  Obviously, I would have gone into harm’s way if asked, but I consider myself very lucky that I never had to be in a combat situation.  I’ve known and been friends with a lot of military people in my life, and many of them saw combat.  I’m not sure I could be as brave as them.  I’m not sure I would have done well.  Many of them told me they were scared – that they didn’t know how they’d do in the moment until they were in it.

Bravery is defined as courage.  Valor.  Gallantry.  Guts.  Heroism.

If Jonah Kelley had survived World War II and returned home, something tells me he would have dismissed the thought that he was brave.  He would have told you that he just did what any of them would have done.  He might have said other soldiers around him were brave, but I really don’t think he would have pinned that word on himself.  The brave people I’ve met have always demurred from the label.  Almost like they felt they hadn’t done enough.

In the 1995 film Angus, George C. Scott imparts a bit of wisdom to a beleaguered teenaged boy.

“Superman isn’t brave.  He’s smart, handsome, even decent.  But he’s not brave.  Superman is indestructible, and you can’t be brave if you’re indestructible.  It’s people who are different, and can be crushed and know it.  Yet they keep on going out there every time.”

Sometimes you have to try to balance being pissed about life’s little trials with “it can always be worse.”  Because it can.

I am not a religious person, but I talk to God and the angels that watch over me daily.  As one of the characters in our movie Faux Paws sums it up:  “At the end of the day we all just want to get home safe to someone we love.”  Each time I pull into the driveway and turn the engine off, I thank all those auras that swim around me.

We owe a lot to people who were and are brave.  I thought about that during my 21-hour journey back home.  Yeah, I’d spent Christmas Eve in a laundromat and I was alone on Christmas day.  In retrospect, it seems like a small price to pay.  Because there have been many who wanted to go home as much or more than I did, but didn’t make it.

You’re lucky when you get to go home.