The following is a semi–autobiographical third-person narration reflecting two nights from John’s 1989 European street-performing tour. He wrote it in hopes that it will serve as the foundation for a second Red, White, and the Blues book.
History Lies in the Eyes of Its Beholder
John R. Hall
“Today the Americans . . .” echoed from a small transistor radio. It had been purchased a few days before, in late August of 1989, just before its owner had ridden the rails on an overnight Eurail pass from the Netherlands into the heart of West Berlin, entrenched in the final days of Cold War East Germany. The small nine-volt squawk box had been propped up on a nightstand, held upright by a nearly empty bottle of Irish whiskey. Its tiny speaker was working hard to fill the stark, moonlit West German boarding room with the BBC’s top-of-the-hour midnight newsfeed, which was recapping recent events reported from its American bureau to a temporarily but wannabe permanently inebriated expat. Britain’s flagship news organization was disseminating anticipated and unexpected goings-on from across the pond about this and that and another thing too.
The term the Americans had roused the soused traveler from his hypnagogic state. After the self-proclaimed American expatriate lifted his booze-filled and clouded head from a lower-end Berlin pension’s pillow, he was finally able to fully comprehend the words he had just heard—the Americans—and what they not only insinuated but also clearly meant. Then, after this post-Beatlemania, post-Woodstock, post–Disco dancing, post–Vietnam War, and non–Yankee Doodle Dandy generation’s refugee turned busker was sitting upright, his liquor-induced, spinning thoughts stopped.
He lit a cigarette, deeply inhaling its nicotine, and held it trapped in his lungs, allowing the maximum amount of stimulant to enter his bloodstream—after which he exhaled slowly while watching a thin, steady stream of barely visible white smoke leave his lips before expanding and dispersing across the dark room. A cloud of smoke hung in the air, creating a temporary airborne altiplano, splitting the room’s atmosphere in two. The bottom side of the horizontal plateau of vapor was highlighted by the night’s moonbeam. It passed through tattered, yellowed-lace window coverings, casting scattered shadows of irregularly shaped, faint rays of illumination into the otherwise unlit room. While he gazed at the sparsely lit, translucent cloud, he took another long, deep drag from his cigarette. The nicotine began to take hold as he again exhaled. It was then that the expat focused on the words he had just heard: the Americans.
Before he had quickly embarked on his unexpected summer tour of Europe, he had never before heard, in such stark terms, his fellow citizens referred to as the others, as not us—as them Americans!
At home, in the good ol’ US of A, the news he heard always reflected a collective us when it reported on Uncle Sam’s nieces’ and nephews’ preoccupations and activities.
It took a full four-count before he realized that his second and now-reoccurring patriotic epiphany had just transpired: America was not the center of the world.
Due to his isolated rearing, occurring securely between two oceans in post-Eisenhower’s America, where the almighty American dollar and prevailing Christian and jingoistic mindsets reigned over and upon everything, he had subconsciously come to believe that all points of view began and ended within a united federal state that never had a collective appetite nor a unified desire to entertain its actual and true history—nor to understand its place on history’s continuing arc.
What a bummer, the street-performing American thought as the BBC continued to spread the news that had recently exploded from California’s wild West Coast: the Menendez brothers’ Beverly Hills family den had been converted into a shooting range wherein two all-American boys, Lyle and Erik, had shot dead their affluent parents.
Not to be outdone by Californians, a few days after the Menendez boys ambushed and massacred their life givers, a New Yorker decided to exercise his Second Amendment rights too. From the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, the BBC reported that a Black teen, Yusef Hawkins, had been shot dead after he—and his brother and two of their friends—had been beaten by a crowd of ten-to-thirty white youths. That neo-lynching reignited racial tensions between New York City’s African and Italian Americans and sparked protests led by Al Sharpton.
There was other big Yank news emanating from the tiny radio: George H. W. Bush (the forty-first) had nominated General Colin Powell for the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making Powell the first Black person to ascend to the top military job. Maybe that’s why some of Bensonhurst’s Italian American boys were wound so tight, the recent expat thought.
The final tidbit the BBC saw fit to share during its brief recap of news from America was that the Woodstock ’89 festival had come and gone. It would later come to be known as the “Forgotten Woodstock” because the most memorable performance on the anniversary of the original 1969 music and art fair (billed as an “Aquarian Exposition” consisting of “3 Days of Peace and Music,” as reflected on the event’s posters and in the news reports from the grounds) was a total lunar eclipse. In August of 1989, Max Yaeger’s farm had lost its charm, the Balloon Man from Seattle thought before his mind drifted back to the month before, when he was sitting in an Amsterdam neighborhood bar.
He was well beyond “one toke over the line” when he pocketed the roach he had been smoking before exiting the Grasshopper’s coffee shop (previously the most famous seller of marijuana to newly arrived, first-time Amsterdam tourists) with a respectable bag of pot. The American abroad decided some Heinekens were not only in order but also desperately needed to soothe and quench his cottonmouth. He walked nearly a kilometer from the beaten tourist path to a small neighborhood Dutch bar, where he ordered a beer.
Not long after the barkeep served a draft of Holland’s famous pale lager, with its obligatory two-finger head of foam topping off the logo-emblazoned fluitje to trap Heineken’s flavor, an old man well beyond twice the age of the newly arrived American said, “Where you from?”
The expat quickly tried to remember everything he had recently read in Rick Steves’s travel guide Europe Through the Back Door, especially the chapter detailing the “ugly American.” After all, this would be his first noncommercial encounter with a Hollander. He did not want to be viewed as just another entitled American backpacking through Europe, looking for pseudo-enlightenment while ignoring the culture of the country being visited. He thought about saying “Canada” but quickly realized that the ensuing conversation might be too long and too involved to successfully pull off his ill-considered subterfuge, so he replied, “Seattle.”
“An American boy!” the old man exclaimed with a big grin that spread across his weather-aged face as he gently slapped the boyish-looking thirty-year-old on his back.
“Yep,” the long-haired, Mötley Crüe–era expat said before following up with, “I bet you’re from Holland.”
Both men shared a prolonged laugh that slowly faded into chuckles. Then the old man ordered them up another round of beers. As soon as they arrived, the Seattleite ordered another round for him and his newly acquired Dutch friend. That frenetic activity continued for a bit longer than an hour while the old man shared memories from the day he saw “angels descend from the sky” and land near his hometown of Eindhoven on September 17, 1944.
The Netherlands had suffered greatly under the Nazis’ occupation during World War II. Hunger engulfed the old man’s younger days. “But on that day,” the old man said to his American drinking buddy, referring to the day America’s airborne soldiers parachuted into Holland, “I knew we would soon be free and well fed. I will remember the parachutes in the air and the Americans in uniform who liberated us until the day I die.”
Wow kept spinning around inside of the American’s inebriated mind. He was intrigued as he asked question after question of the animated, long-since-retired Dutch fisher. He asked serious and silly questions. He wanted to know if the Dutch boy who had had his finger in a Haarlem dike had a name, and if so, was he a national hero . . . as famous in Holland as Johnny Appleseed was in America?
Eventually, the American thought he’d impart some of his homeland’s history unto his new but much older Dutch friend. But before he could get the words “In American history” out of his mouth, the old Dutchman of the sea began to loudly laugh.
“What’s so funny?” the confused expat asked.
“Your nation has no history—it only has recent activity.”
“No,” the ill-prepared American said. “America has history: the Boston tea party, 1776’s Declaration of Independence . . .”
The Netherlander fisher interrupted him and declared, “That’s recent activity! Follow me, and I’ll show you some history.”
The men spilled out into the streets, and after the intoxicated twosome had indirectly walked more than a kilometer during the midnight hour, the old man asked, “See that?” He was pointing to a cornerstone of an old church—the Oude Kerk. The expat was unaware that he was now standing only a hop, skip, and jump away from the coffee shop he had departed less than two hours before.
“Yep,” the American said as he stared up at the Gothic architecture’s spire while trying desperately to keep his balance and not fall into the waters of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal.
“Well, that building is nearly eight hundred years old,” the equally vertigo-challenged old man said. “You see,” he continued, “that’s the main issue Europeans have with Americans. You don’t know anything about history. You are taught to view history from 1776 forward. That building is nearly five hundred years older than even the thought of a United States occurred to anyone.”
It might have been the high-quality marijuana the American had smoked, or the numerous Heinekens he had rapidly consumed, but it was probably the combination of both, coupled with standing in front of a building older than his compromised mind could comprehend, that rendered the usually comical and chatty American somberly mute.
“Do you know where you are?” The old man’s question broke the comfortable silence between the newly minted friends.
“In Amsterdam,” the American said, before continuing with, “Beyond that, I haven’t a clue.”
“Well, we’re in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s world-famous medieval neighborhood where the world’s oldest profession is practiced,” the old man imparted through a mischievous smile and focused eyes, which were gazing across the canal and into a red-lit window where a stereotypical-looking barely clothed young blonde Dutch woman was standing. There were many more similarly lit and equally enticing occupied windows, continuing up and down both sides of the canal, for as far as the men’s eyes could see. Each acted as a lighthouse, casting a beacon across the canal’s waters, showing the route to an enticing harbor for the wandering and now-randy American.
He was trying to think of a way to mutually end his interaction with the old man so he could partake of Amsterdam’s red light district’s offerings when he heard him say, “Let’s support the local economy and employ the services of a couple of ladies. Of course, we’ll be going Dutch.”
Back in West Berlin, the expatriate smiled as he remembered the evening he had shared with a grand old Dutch fisher and the hour he had spent in the company of two of Amsterdam’s enterprising, entertaining, entrepreneurial young ladies, who together educated an old boy on how to perform a few new tricks.
As the accidental expatriate contemplated “Americans” from a different psychological and geographical perspective, he turned off the transistor radio while simultaneously extinguishing the remnants of his smoldering Camel cigarette. And as he lay back down in his West Berlin bed, he thought that thus far the price of admission into Europe with its subsequent historical and physical enlightenments and education was money well spent. He had gained a new perspective of history—and he had obtained some carnal knowledge.
His last thought as he dozed off was, My non-Puritan, non–“one nation under God” education has finally begun.
Copyright © 2021 – Hunting For Thompson – All Rights Reserved