Joltin’ Joe, Bob Wills and Piercing the Iron Curtain

This marks the 1000th time I’ve sat down at a computer, gone to my blog page, started typing, and hit “publish” rather than “delete.” Frankly, I never expected I’d go on this long, but I have. When I began, I knew some day I would tell you this story. It’s one of my favorite personal stories and I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. Being a child of the Cold War, this little tale speaks to me in a way that some of you who are considerably younger than I may not understand; but I think it’s worth telling. The 1000th post seemed like a good time. For  those of you read me occasionally, thank you. For those of you who read me with some consistency, have you seen a shrink recently? Now the story, which is true.

City Museum, Dresden

City Museum, Dresden

Back in 2000 my wife and I got to take a trip to Europe. She wanted to see Berlin and both of us were curious about how the former East Germany was dealing with the end of the Cold War. As it was only two hours by train from Berlin, we decided we’d hop down for a quick look at Dresden.

The city was restored from the World War II bombing, but then was allowed to deteriorate under the East German regime. The buildings were nice, but dingy with an ugly coat of soot and grime on most of them. If you walked through the old part of town you noticed that they were cleaning the buildings slowly and doing it with systematic thoroughness. With exceptions, the further west you went in the town, the dirtier the buildings. The further east you went in the town, the cleaner the buildings. It was as if the city fathers (and mothers, I suppose) decided to clean the town starting on the east side and finish up on the west side. The Dresden City Museum was on the far eastern side of the old town area.

It was a lot fancier building than our local city museum, but essentially it was the same kind of thing. It featured local items ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous and emphasized how much the locals had contributed to German culture and art, which is pretty much what our local museum does in my home town. Dresden is just bigger and has a lot more stuff in a much more impressive building.

My wife and I have a deal when we visit a museum. We find a spot and agree to meet there at a specific time. That allows us to go through at our own speed seeing what each of us wants and ignoring those things that don’t interest us at all. She doesn’t have to stand patiently waiting for me to finish looking over some exhibit and I don’t have to pound my head on the wall hoping she’ll eventually get through with what I consider a particularly boring room. It’s a marvelous system and we used it in Dresden. As fate would have it I finished first and arrived back at the appointed meeting place, the bottom of the staircase to the second floor right next to the kiosk where you paid your money and got your entry ticket.

As I’m likely to do on those occasions, I parked on the edge of one of the lower steps out of people’s way and did something I do a lot when I’m killing time, I started whistling softly. I never pay much attention to what I’m whistling, I just try to keep it low so I don’t disturb anyone. Well, I blew it this time. There were two older ladies in the kiosk, docents who took your money and would lead the occasional tour group through the museum. The younger one looked to be in her late 60s and it was she who heard me.

She came out of the kiosk, looked directly at me and in a heavy accent said, “Bob Wills.”

Now I have to admit that got my attention. Here I was in Eastern Germany (former East Germany) and I was hearing the name of an American musician that had been dead 25 years and hadn’t had a hit in 50. It took me a second to realize that I was whistling the old Wills staple “Faded Love.” Where I live in Oklahoma you have to be able to sing both the chorus and one verse to graduate from high school. The same is true of getting into college, unless you happen to play football. In that case they waive the requirement. My son knew both verses and the chorus so he was given a free ride scholarship for four years.

I nodded. She came over, sat down on the stairs beside me and started singing, again in heavily accented English, very softly, “I miss you darling more and more every day, as heaven would miss the stars above.” That got my attention too. I had enough sense not to join her. Then she told me a story which I now pass on to you. Her English was pretty good, my German isn’t that bad, so between her English and my German I got most of the tale and I think I got it right.

Back about 1950 (the name of the song and the reference to one of the ball players mentioned gave me this approximate date) the Russians and East German Communist Party decided that the citizens of the new People’s Paradise should have nothing to do with Western ways (and here I mean the West in the sense of the US, Britain, Canada, France, etc., not the Cowboy Old West of Jesse James and John Wayne). No western style clothes, no western music, no western books, no western anything. She was about 15 or so and was part of a group of six or seven other kids about the same age. Turns out they loved western music. Someone had a record player of some type (I don’t remember her telling me what kind) and they had a few western records smuggled in, among which was Wills’ version of “Faded Love.” It was new in 1950, hence the earliest date this story could occur. They also had a radio. Dresden was still a bombed out mess, but there were some cellars that were useable and unoccupied so they’d set up a scout to tell them if anyone was coming and then get down in one of the cellars. Light was by lantern (I always think of the oil lanterns you see in Cowboy movies, but I don’t know if that’s what she meant.). They had to make sure that no light could get out of the cellar to alert anyone. The solution was to bring blankets to hang over big holes and tattered pieces of cloth to put into chinks that might show light. Then they could crank up the record player and very softly play a song and dance to it. One of their favorites was “Faded Love.” It wasn’t so great to dance to but the words, which those who spoke English translated into German, spoke to them of the sadness they felt in their own lives behind the “Iron Curtain.”

“I miss you darling more and more every day as heaven would miss the stars above.

“With every heartbeat I still think of you and remember our faded love.”

And then there was the radio. They could pick up the BBC and a few other channels. One was American. She thought it was the Army radio channel. I asked if it was AFN (Armed Forces Network) she but wasn’t sure. It gave them more music, uncensored news, and it gave them baseball. They didn’t know a thing about the game, but there was a crowd and they were loud and they were, unlike the singer in “Faded Love,” obviously happy. Loud and happy? Well, those were things the docent and her buddies weren’t and probably weren’t going to get much of a chance to be. So they listened to the games to hear the crowd cheer and to hear people being happy. And of course they picked up a little baseball knowledge, although she said she never understood much about the game. Most particularly they picked up the names of players like Joe DiMaggio (whose last season was 1951 and serves as the latest date for the story) and Duke Snider. They loved the nicknames so much that most of the boys in the group took a nickname for themselves (to only be used when they were with the group). One guy became “Duke” and another “Joltin’ Joe”. Of course they had no idea what “Joltin'” meant, but it sounded good. As time went along my little docent married “Joltin’ Joe.” She told me they were still married and she still called him “Joe” occasionally, but only in private (old habits die hard).

She thanked me for listening, went back to her kiosk. I sat there looking pretty stupid (something not uncommon for me) until my wife finally showed up. We left the museum, went on to tour the rest of the city, or at least as much as we could see in a day, and took the train back to Berlin. On the trip back I told the story to my wife and noticed a tear in her eye.

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7 Responses to “Joltin’ Joe, Bob Wills and Piercing the Iron Curtain”

  1. Miller Says:

    Congratulations on 1000! And thank you for that wonderful story. Tear in mine too.

  2. wkkortas Says:

    This is a great, great story, and one of the reason I’ve been glad to be around for my portion of the first thousand. Your story reminds of something a former co-worker told me–he was born on Long Island in the mid-70s, and, as he quipped, “You were born, the doctor slapped your ass, and the handed your mother a copy of Frampton Comes Alive.

  3. Precious Sanders Says:

    Wow, what an incredible story. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    Absolutely awesome story and I’m glad we finally had the “special occasion” you needed to share it. I love when baseball and music entwine to bring us an experience that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

    Congratulations on #1,000! Here’s to the next post and the next one and the next one … and all the times I’ll get to comment with the abbreviation created just for you … TYFTMS

  5. Allan G. Smorra Says:

    A wonderful story, over so many years. I just finished reading Slaughterhouse Five last week—timing is everything.

  6. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    Fantastic story. Reminds me of some of my time in Germany.

    1000 blog posts and many of them like this. I’m starting to see a book that should be written.

  7. Gary Trujillo Says:

    Great story, great blog and great human being. Congrats on your 1,000th post. Here’s to hoping that there are many more.

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