Ever since I found out that I was not born in the U.S., I have always wanted to visit the town where I was born: Heidelberg, Germany.
Today, that dream came true. Even though I could not walk around inside the block, I could see most of it from the gate.
It looked just like Fort Leonardwood, or the gate and what buildings I could see. There was no one; it was quiet. I’m not sure a single car passed on the street while I was standing there.
I expected some guard to come out, ask me about my business at the base, to hear soldiers marching in the background, maybe a cadence or two. I had a plan for just what I would tell him, and the sign said, “Visitor sign-in max. 15 min.” I could see everything on the block in that time frame, and would be happy for an escort.
But no one came. There were no soldiers, or cars, or scanners, or cadences or anything I would expect from this place.
The base had closed and the colors lowered for the final time in 2013.
The barbed wire and chain links were still there, containing what was left of the space, the memories and the people who once brought it to life.
At one point, a long time ago, my mother and father were a part of that life. And so was I.
I was born here, and at one point, this was my first home. How long has it been? Over 20 years since I was last here, rolling around in stroller with my parents. The hospital where I was born, from what I can tell, was called Nachrichten Kaserne. In 2008, it was converted to a clinic to better serve the community.
But that’s not what I was thinking about.
I was imagining my parents walking around this neighborhood, teaching me to walk, spending time with other families in this one, small city block in the middle of Heidelberg, Germany.
I spent my whole life wanting to come back here. This is where I was from, I thought. It’s a chapter in my life I can’t access, and I want to see it for myself.
I had no idea what I would find, what the colors would look like, how I would feel. Honestly, I expected to be more emotional at seeing the castle, since that’s what I remembered. But this place, with it’s silence and memories and barbed wire, this was what mattered.
Whenever I’m emotional, there’s a tingle behind my cheekbones. When I feel it, that’s when I know.
I was holding onto the fence, peeking my fingers through to reach into the air of this former base. There was nothing to grasp on the other side, perhaps the ghostly hand of General George S. Patton, who died in the very hospital in which I was born.
What did I want from this? Was there some sort of answer I was seeking? How did I feel, now that I was staring at one of my life goals, an ever-elusive item on my bucket list that slipped away every time my plans to travel fell through.
But that’s what they never tell you about bucket lists. There’s a list, and boxes to check next to each item. Everyone makes it sound like “You do the thing, you mark the check, onto the next thing,” almost like it’s grocery shopping.
For me, this particular goal, this list-item, had a long road before it could be checked.
-I had to pick up the pencil, decide that I wanted to go
-I pressed the pencil to the paper in undergrad, when I started learning German to make sure I could speak it when I got there
-I traced a bit of the line, as I planned a study abroad trip my senior year
-I set the pencil aside when I chose to graduate early and move to South Korea for a teaching job
As with anything, I picked the pencil up eventually, when I returned to the States from South Korea and started sorting my priorities. A few other things came first, but then I had the opportunity to join a mentor of mine in Germany for two weeks in Bavaria, and I knew that my chance was here, at last.
I drew a circle, added a star for emphasis, and made my plans to come to Heidelberg. There were trains to book and housing to secure, the line moved a little further down. I arrived in Frankfurt and conducted my research in Regensburg, I felt the line meet the bottom of the box. I took the train to Heidelberg on Friday, and visited the castle on Saturday, the line moved back up to make a “v” in the checkbox.
And then there was today. And I pressed my fingers through the chainlink fence at the gate and looked at Nachrichten Kaserne, the old army barracks, and the concrete surrounding it all.
And the silence wasn’t eerie. It was peaceful. The wind felt like the breath of the block, whispering to me, “You’ve made it. You see it. This is where you were and where you’re from. You have history, and it is unique to you. It is yours, starting here and moving forward. Now go: find the other things on your list. It’s time to leave in peace, knowing that there is no longer anything for you here to seek after. You have found what you needed, even if you don’t quite understand.”
And that’s how I felt, standing there. Like I didn’t quite understand everything I was thinking and feeling. There was nothing left to say, and no thoughts to give back to the breeze, just my gaze through the chainlink fence and the knowledge that I’d found another piece of what I call “home.”
The check had left it’s mark.