The Pipes of Pan
In caverns deep the Old Gods sleep;
But the trees still know their Lord,
And it's the Pipes of Pan that call the tune,
In the twilight in the wood.
The leaves they dance the Goat God's tune,
And they whisper his name to the winds,
And the oak tree dreams of a God with horns,
And knows no other king.
Vivianne Crowley, 1969
(used by permission)
As the 707 lifted off from Philadelphia enroute to Frankfurt, I felt a nagging despondency set in. I couldn't place this sense of emptiness. It wasn't because I was leaving "home"-- all of those illusions had been shattered in another far away place. It wasn't because I was leaving my country. My country had left me long ago. It was just something that was missing. That was April 1, 1970.
When I stepped onto the tarmac at Rhine-Main, the snow was blowing in my face. I was in short sleeved Khakis, and thought I should be cold, but strangely, I wasn't. Instead, I felt almost embraced by a calm, a serenity that I had never experienced before. It was a sense of place, a sense of belonging, although I had never been here before. I couldn't explain it, I couldn't even describe it. I soon came to know it as gemütlichkeit, the German word for "comfortable," although the connotation goes far beyond the physical and assumes almost a spiritual quality. And the gemütlichkeit remained. I absorbed, or was absorbed by the culture and spirit of my ancestral land. Many places I visited, and a few people I met gave me other strange, new feelings that I could not explain. I would much later come to call them numinous or transcendent experiences. My father, though a generation closer to this place, could never understand it. Of course his perspective was different. Another time, another place, a different war. But for me, the gemütlichkeit remained.
A few years later, the Army decided that it was time for us to go "home." So, reluctantly, my young wife and I boarded a plane and headed for Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Although she was an American, she was of German extraction, and had grown up in Germany. She shared this same sense of place-- this gemütlichkeit.
In a taxi on the way to Fort Dix from the Philadelphia Airport, we both realized, almost simultaneously, that it was gone. The billboards, the litter, the strife seemed totally alien to us. But, like good soldiers, we went on to Fort Bragg. The children came along. First our son, then our daughter. They brought us great joy, and assumed the center stage in our lives. The gemütlichkeit, however, was gone. And so were a lot of other things. The Army was restructuring, as was the subset of the Army to which I belonged. We decided it was time to leave, and go back home to Texas, to family, friends, the place I grew up. At least there, I thought, the gemütlichkeit would return. It didn't. I took a job as a municipal policeman, and we went on with our lives. We made new friendships and renewed some old ones. Work, college, and raising children kept us fairly focused on the activities of daily living.
In late winter of 1979, a friend and I, along with our six year old sons, made one of our frequent expeditions down to Glen Rose to hunt arrowheads. We had found an area where we could almost always find tips, and points, and shards of pottery. On this particular day, we were having some success. We had found some nice points, and a couple of scrapers. I was on a fairly steep cliff above a ravine, turning rocks and being mindful of hibernating rattlesnakes. Phil and the two boys were about a hundred yards in front and down in the dry creek bed. For some inexplicable reason, I looked up at the thunderheads rolling by. Perhaps I was hallucinating, perhaps not. I saw, very vividly in the clouds, a Comanche warrior looking down at me. Bare chested, a choker, an armband, a single feather in his headress, a spear in his right hand, mounted on a paint. Just sitting there, just looking down at me. He looked familiar. But I had never seen that particular image before, not in any photograph, not in any sketch or painting that I could remember. I almost called out to the others, but I didn't. Then he was gone, and I had the sense that I didn't really belong here. I looked down, and right beside my boot was a flint spearhead, perfectly formed and in museum condition. As I picked it up, I almost felt like I was stealing. I put the trophy in my pack, nevertheless, and went on with the business at hand. But the stoic image of the Comanche warrior haunted me for years. Not in a frightening way, just in a curious way.
In 1981, the Army was rebuilding, and since I had some training and skills they were short of at the time, I was tendered a commission and invited to return to active duty. After some soul searching and some long discussions with my wife, we decided to accept the offer. Following an unaccompanied tour in the far east, and a brief stay at Fort Sam Houston, we found ourselves headed back to Germany. As soon as I wound through customs and the maze of Frankfurt International, and found myself back on a German street, the gemütlichkeit returned, like an old friend. My wife and children joined me a few weeks later, and had the same experience. At least, my wife. To the kids, it was just another adventure.
In the ensuing years, a similar script played out every time we crossed the Atlantic. Our last posting was in Belgium. It wasn't Germany, but it was close enough. We fell into the company of some delightful Dutch and Flemish folks, and we were more or less adopted as long lost family. We spent a good deal of time with them visiting many of the old sacred sites of the Celts and their Teutonic cousins. From the Dolmens of Ireland and Wales to the megaliths of the Ardennes and Blochenburg, every visit brought yet another transcendent experience. Another connection to the spirit of place. During one such visit to a site in what was once East Germany, this persistent memory of the Comanche warrior came back to me. I related the whole incident to one of my Dutch friends. He didn't seem surprised. He simply told me that there were spirits of the land as well as ancestral spirits and spirits of the Gods and they all had something to teach along the way. He suggested that I sign a personal peace treaty and get on with it, which I eventually did.
In 1995, I somewhat reluctantly retired from the Army, and we left Europe yet again. And yet again, the gemütlichkeit was left behind. This time, however, we seem to be developing a greater sense for the spirit of place. We seem to be getting acquainted with our own native land for the first time. Not the gemütlichkeit — at least not yet. For now, at least, we are still sojourners.
©1995, D.L. Oringderff, Ph.D.