The Oompah That Wasn't
FORTY years ago this yarn was "classified"; an official United States No-No was applied to conceal its absurdity rather than to spare the Union adverse publicity. I was in Germany in 1953, doing a small errand for our State Department, and I'm sure you will not have heard this one until now. We had at that time not only our heavy military stance but also a considerable mission known as HICOG to aid defeated Germany into the postwar path of democratic righteousness. In that year James B. Conant, Harvard's
president, became our ambassador to Germany and also our High Commissioner for the Occupation of Germany - HICOG. His HQ was at Mehlem on the Rhine, just upstream from Bonn. The Soviet Union, France, and England, as our victorious allies, each had an occupation zone such as ours, and the boundaries were observed.
As part of our military, we had the celebrated Seventh Army Band. Even in band-cluttered Germany, where "oompah" is second only to whipped cream, this American military group was esteemed. It had 77 trombones, 78 glockenspiels, and three brigadier generals. And it came into the head of the Lord Mayor of the city of Freiburg to invite the Seventh Army Band to come to his city and do a concert for a local charity. German cities, I understand, like to have two mayors. The Oberburgermeister runs the city, at tends the banquets, and makes the speeches, while his associate comes around after the festivities and helps wash the dishes.
Evidently the Oberburgermeister of Freiburg had clout enough to get his desire up the line to Commissioner Conant's office, and deliberation began. It was decided that this could be a gesture of merit in the way of German-American relations, and one day the Lord Mayor was happy to learn that his wish had been granted: The Seventh Army Band would play a charity concert in Freiburg. He was told that 2,700 tickets were being printed, and it would be his duty to see they were sold and a big SRO crowd assembl ed. With customary efficiency, he sold the tickets in lots to his party supporters, who paid for them and then sold them again. The crowd was assured.
Meantime, HICOG had a splendid idea, and the Lord Mayor was notified that in addition to the music of the Seventh Army Band, the program would include operatic selections from various German masterpieces by a Miss Truman. Miss Truman was the daughter of our president, Harry, and this was the greatest thing that had happened to Freiburg since 1493, when the library acquired the Portuguese charts used by Columbus when he sailed to America.
Understand that Freiburg is in southern Germany and was in the French zone of occupation. And somebody in Washington, D.C., got to thinking about this and wondered if Paris might consider this concert an intrusion from the American zone, and international amity might be offended. Diplomacy is like that. Until that time, about the only cultural note the Republic of France had lavished on its zone was the clear-cutting of some stately and revered trees in the sacred Black Forest - an act the Germans consid ered a more heinous atrocity than the last-day bombing obliteration of Happy Freudenstadt. The German rule is that one may look at the Black Forest but ne touche pas! Would Paris resent this concert?
So word came the next morning by Eilbote that the Seventh Army Band and Miss Truman would not be able to appear in Freiburg after all. A flimsy excuse was offered - something like the tympanists were grounded in Frankfurt for infractions under the Emily Post Accord. The Lord Mayor was heartbroken and devastated and tore up his speech. The affection he had been nourishing for the United States of America turned to disdain. But then he straightened up, tossed his head, smiled, and muttered the German equiv alent of OK - which I think is OK.
He announced that the big concert would not take place, but that the charity would still get the money from the tickets. Instead of the band and the president's daughter, the subscribers would be entertained by the Lord Mayor himself, who would play the piano. This came to pass. Freiburgers, let down by the USA, came just the same to show how they felt. His Lordship played. Miss Truman never sang in Freiburg. France was not offended. And as substitute for the band, the Mayor alone was a big success.