When I was an undergraduate at a large California university, I took a course my senior year in contemporary world history. A young German exchange student was in this class, silently enduring catcalls and teasing from some of the class when he defended any aspect of his homeland.
It was the early 1950s, and his German nationality was still unique to some young Americans, and mostly in a negative way. The names he was called embarrassed me. I couldn't help admiring his courage. I liked people who stood up for themselves and weren't afraid. He was proud to be German.
I finally stood up in the class one day and shouted my classmates down with a few impromptu challenges about courtesy and decency to a guest of our nation. I defended Albert's right to have an opinion. What was college about, after all?
I suppose it didn't hurt that I was also senior-class president. They all fell silent and never again gave Albert a bad time. I remember inviting him home for dinner once afterward, where he met my family.
There was required military service in the United States in those years. After undergraduate studies, you had to serve two years. A year or so after graduation, I was an Army corporal, serving in Germany. And just a few months after I'd arrived in Germany, a letter was forwarded to me from Albert. He'd heard I was now in Germany myself. ''Welcome!'' he wrote. ''Come to Aachen! My family want to meet you! And you must come to Aachen next month, for Winston Churchill will be here!''
My hero? In Aachen? It can't be possible, I thought. I telephoned Albert at once. It seemed that Sir Winston would come to Aachen on his first peacetime visit to Germany, over 10 years after the end of World War II, to receive the Charlemagne Peace Prize.
Albert was at the train station in Aachen to meet me, and from there he drove me to a hotel. That night we had dinner with his father and mother. By then, he had told me why his ''house'' would be so crowded that I'd need to stay in a hotel. His father was the recent German ambassador to Belgium and was also the Oberburgermeister or Lord Mayor of Aachen. As such, he was the official host to those coming for the Churchill visit.
The ''house,'' an ancient castle all lord mayors occupied during their term of office, was filled with European nobles, prime ministers, government officials, security staff, and more.
All of this was news to me, and potentially unsettling to a young Californian corporal lost in a world he had never known. But my reception was so warm and sincere the night I met Albert's parents that there was no doubt in my mind that I was welcome. They treated me like an honored guest. It felt like family to me.
The other talk at the dinner table that night was about the great man's visit the next day. He would be staying at my hotel, and Albert asked me to be there when he arrived. His family was curious, if not concerned, about his welcome. How would the townspeople treat him? I assured them I'd be there.
A great Rolls Royce pulled up to the Quellenhof Hotel in Aachen right on time the next day. I stood near the front door of the hotel and watched. A young pageboy ran out to the car and opened the door. Slowly, a body emerged - plump, hatted, dignified, beaming. The most famous face in the world rose up at us. Churchill stood, looking about like a tourist.
A spontaneous burst of applause greeted him. The townspeople cheered, shouted, whistled, and applauded some more. Like a candidate for reelection, Churchill tipped his hat and bowed to the crowd. They cheered louder at that.
Dignitaries rushed forward to welcome him. Scotland-Yard types covered his route into the lobby. All was going better than anyone had hoped. Until the great man's foot caught on the throw rug in the middle of the lobby and he fell with a crash to the floor. Defeated, finally, by a German rug.
All stood around, embarrassed, flustered, nervous. Naturally, Lady Churchill saved the situation. ''Well,'' she said suddenly, as if absolutely nothing had just happened, ''Perhaps we could go upstairs now and wash up a bit.'' The incident was gone in a rush to get them upstairs. All was calm and peaceful once again.
The next day, Sir Winston came to Aachen's ancient, restored town hall to accept his prize and to give a speech. Albert's mother pretended she had ''so much to do for the reception'' that night that she just didn't have time to go to the ceremony, so nothing would do but that I should take her seat.
I rushed to the town hall, sitting in what was clearly marked as Albert's mother's seat, wedged in between the chairman of the International Red Cross and an ambassador. I thought: ''Look how kindly I am being treated by total strangers, 7,000 miles from my home. My heart's desire is coming true in this moment, and I don't even know why.''
In my mind, I immediately heard myself defending Albert in that classroom years before. I thought, ''Why did I do that?'' and then I heard, ''Why are they doing this for you?'' I had my answers.
The great soaring ceiling vibrated with the sound of hundreds of voices: a section for European nobility, royalty, and honored guests; a section for the press; a section for the diplomats and those associated with the Charlemagne Prize. And me. Pinching myself, rubbernecking, gasping with excitement.
The stairway curtains were still drawn. But I could peek through one that did not close all the way. Up the long stairs to the great hall came two young German ushers, oh-so-carefully carrying their precious cargo, Churchill, in a chair they held between them. The old warrior sat there, utterly delighted, smiling as his sedan chair bore him up those endless steps. He slipped off the chair, steadied himself, and then the curtains were drawn. There was great applause as he made his way slowly to the podium. What would he do? What would he say? We all leaned forward.
One of the Western world's greatest orators stood before us, clearly relishing his moment. And something else. Suddenly, he seemed no longer aged or feeble. Lively with joy and gazing about firmly, he began: ''Ladies and gentlemen.''
Then he paused dramatically, looked around, and said: ''Meine Damen und Herren!'' He looked around like a youthful imp who'd pulled off a marvelous scam and wanted a reward. He got it. People applauded, wept, laughed. All doubts had now vanished. A friend was talking to them.
A reunited world had come together to honor a man who, having dominated a great war, came now as a man of peace. His speech echoed those themes. His phrasing, his words still could strike sparks.
The huge Charlemagne gold medal, on a long gold chain around his neck, flashed in the light. Once again, the world was listening to him. The world, and a young Californian Army corporal who thought free speech, the right to speak one's own opinions, was what college was all about.