The summer before my senior year at the University of Arizona, one of my dorm mates at Pima Hall, Carolyn Niethammer, and I spent the summer in Europe.
Under the aegis of the U of A Placement Office, we went armed with summer jobs in a calendar factory in Kempten, a small town in Bavaria in southern Germany—West Germany at the time. We were truly babes in the woods. We flew to London from NYC on a U of A charter flight, having made our way from Arizona to New York in the most cost-effective manner possible—I took a Greyhound and Carolyn rode with the wife of a Davis Monthan Airman who was driving home to New York. Coming back, we both came on Greyhound. My folks picked me up at the bus stop in Benson.
At the time, I was an English major and Carolyn was a journalism major. I was from Bisbee, Arizona, and she was from Prescott, Arizona. Before we left, she negotiated a deal to send dispatches to her hometown paper, the Prescott Courier, for pay. While Carolyn was busy working on her articles, I wrote long letters home to my family which my mother, Evie Busk, promptly delivered to my hometown newspaper, the Bisbee Daily Review, where they were published, mostly verbatim and for free, by a local columnist—Arlene Gigstad who, I can assure you, bore absolutely NO resemblance to my fictional columnist, Marliss Shackleford!
This week, thanks to the help of my niece, Becky Federico, who lives in Sierra Vista, I was able to revisit those letters which have been preserved by the the Review’s successor, the Sierra Vista Herald. Becky went through the challenging process of finding the various columns and sending me photos of them.
It really was a trip down memory lane. We spent two nights in New York City with friends of my older sister. On the second night we got to see a Broadway show—The Subject was Roses with Elizabeth Taylor live on stage.
Once we got to England, we had to make our way to Germany via a cold shipboard crossing of the English Channel where we were both plagued with seasickness. From beginning to end, from the time we left NYC until our first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty on our way home, it was an eye-opening experience.
Seeing what struck me then and what I wrote about it some 55 years after the fact was like an adventure in time traveling. In Kempten we lived in a youth hostel with young people from England, France, India, and Denmark. Our very limited language skills in German, French, and even English English made for challenging communications. The first word I learned in German was der Kleiderbügel—clothes hanger, our first night at the hostel when we were unpacking our luggage.
I was a girl from the desert—and what astonished me most was how green everything was—the gray green of the rivers, the deep greens of the forests, and the chartreuse of the fields. I wrote that I felt as though I had put on a pair of sunglasses and had forgotten to take them off.
During the week, Carolyn and I worked in a calendar factory, making cardboard backings for the following year’s Sieberling Tire calendar. It was a production line where glue-covered front sides with an Alpine scene came down first. Once they were attached to the cardboard backing, another plain sheet of glue-covered paper needed to be attached to the back. Carolyn worked the fronts. I worked the backs and the lady in charge mostly walked around the room shouting “Schnell, Schnell, Schnell!” which means QUICKLY!!!
Until I was rereading the letters, I had forgotten about my partner at the factory, a middle-aged woman named Frau Pomerine, who brought us aprons so we wouldn’t get glue on our “nice American clothes.” She brought us snacks from home for coffee breaks. Eventually we went to a neighboring village to have Sunday lunch with Frau Pomerine, her aging mother, and her special needs daughter. She was using what she earned at the calendar factory to support a family of three. We were spending what we earned on weekend trips all over Europe
The travelogues I wrote about those trips were published in Arlene’s columns. We went to Munich, Zurich, Milan, Austria, and to wine fest in small towns all over Bavaria. What I glossed over in those reports was exactly HOW we traveled. The truth is, we hitchhiked. Toward the end of our stay in Kempten a reporter from a local paper came to interview us. We sent a copy of the article home without having first vetted it properly. Evie found someone who translated it and our hitchhiking was revealed to all. By then, however, since we were already headed home, it was too late for my mother to do anything about it.
I wrote about having goosebumps in the Louvre when I found myself standing in front of pieces of art work I had learned about in my Humanities class. I wrote about being astonished in Munich when, walking down the main drag with Carolyn, I was stopped by someone who said, “Aren’t you a Busk?” Yup, guilty as charged. As for the Bisbeeite who caught me? That was Sheila Goar, the older daughter of a man who had once been our father’s employer.
This week, through the miracle of newspaper archives, I’ve also been able to read some of Carolyn’s dispatches covering those same events and travels—similar observations but distinctly different points of view. Surprisingly enough, much of what we wrote had to do with the foods we were experiencing for the first time.
That trip made both of us different people than the ones we were before. When Carolyn and I came home we completed our educations, and we’ve both gone on to follow our shared dream job of writing. Carolyn started out as a columnist for the Arizona Daily Star, but for the past several decades she’s become an expert in the field of Southwest and Native American Cookery. Her latest book is called A Desert Feast.
There’s food in her books, and food in mine. It turns out that trip in 1965 was a harbinger of all that.