A One-of-a-Kind Entrance
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.