A Baker from Dresden

I returned home to Friedrichshafen on the train from central Germany last Sunday. My wife, daughter, and I had second class tickets on the slow train—which meant a lot of stops. On the second stop, an elderly man got on the train, and asked if he could sit across from me. Sure, I grunted. I liked him, but still had some hopes of escaping a conversation and not revealing my horrible American accent. Alas, my shyness was not to be rewarded. He started talking about how uncomfortable the benches were these days. Screwing up my courage, I said something to the effect that at least they weren’t as uncomfortable as in the past. Covering for my language deficiencies, my German wife piped in that she remembered when the benches were made of wood.

This got him going, and I found myself straining to listen over the rumble of the train. He was a retired baker, it seemed, who had left East Germany in 1954 to come to the West. He was pleasant, and knowing that my wife was also listening (and could translate what I missed later), encouraged him to continue by smiling, making eye contact, and muttering the occasional “Ja.” More of his story came out, of leaving the East, the problems of Communism, and the blessings of life in the West. Just the sort of thing you expect to hear from refugees, even long after they have fled their home.

At some point along the way, he asked us a question, and I let my wife answer again. But then inevitably, she interjected that we were from the United States, and that I was American.

“Ah an Ami, I did not know. Here I was rattling away in German and you do not know what I was saying.” He seemed embarrassed by the situation, and I felt a momentary flush of pride, realizing that I had actually passed as a German for over ten minutes, and probably eight or nine short sentences.

“No, no, it’s ok, the Ami understands some German,” my wise wife added helpfully (gee thanks Dagmar).

“Ah, the Amis! Did you know I am from Dresden in East Germany? And on February 13-15, 1945, the British fire-bombed Dresden. And then the next day the American planes came in over the river at about 40 meters and used their machine guns to shoot the people running away?”

My cover blown, I indicated that yes, I knew about the fire-bombing of Dresden. But he said it all in a friendly way, so I asked him to continue with his story. My wife interjected that many Americans know about Dresden from having read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

He had never heard of Slaughterhouse Five, and asked what it was about, and my wife told him about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and his crazy little book about the Dresden fire-bombing. My daughter Kirsten, who read Slaughterhouse Five in English class last year at Bear River High School, in the meantime got out a bag of gummy bears, and offered him some. He took them appreciatively.

He matter-of-factly repeated seeing the American planes strafe the civilian populations up and down the river Elbe. The Baker explained that he was born in 1936 and nine years old at the time, old enough to remember. He also said that the official German statistics that 30,000 civilian dead in the fire-bombing are bogus. He pointed out that there were millions refugees in Dresden at the time, and their deaths were not accounted for.* But he had to go. He thanked us for the conversation, and we thanked him, and he left the train.

Kirsten rides the bus to school every day here in Friedrichshafen. Quite often older men get on the bus; she thinks that there must be a retirement home on the bus line. A few of the old men end up talking to no one in particular. But she says the story is always the same: they talk about war and bombing. Perhaps they are survivors of the bombings of Friedrichshafen, or maybe they are just repeating stories they have heard from others. Friedrichshafen was heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II—the Germans built aircraft here, as well as some of the V-2 rockets which struck England in the last years of the war.

It is almost 63 years since Dresden and Friedrichshafen were bombed, and World War II ended. Wars last a long time, don’t they? I still occasionally meet American World War II veterans, though not so much anymore. After all, to be a World War II veteran, you need to have been born before about 1927, which makes them at least 80 years old today. Also, I rarely take public transportation in the Untied States, and so do not meet strangers as often. And I never meet war witnesses who were nine-year-old civilians. After all, the United States was not affected the same way as Germany, Poland, France, or the other countries where the battles were fought.

I wonder if people riding on street-cars in 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia, have similar experiences? Sixty-three years after the Civil War did Yankees visiting from New York have conversations with the children who remembered Sherman’s march, and former slaves who survived that War? Were there old people sitting on Atlanta’s street cars talking to no one in particular about Sherman’s march through Georgia? I guess also that this means that 63 years after the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad in 2003, that is in 2066, some “Ami” will be riding public transport in Iraq and will hear tales of that event too.

In my Population class two years ago, we discussed the final pension payment made by the Department of Veterans Affairs made to a Civil War widow—it happened in 2003, 138 years after the Civil War ended. Wars last a long time, don’t they?


*I checked the baker’s memories against internet sources. The received wisdom is that…the charges of American strafing are controversial, meaning some say yes, and some say it didn’t happen. In terms of casualties the actual body count was about 30,000 dead. This represents all the actual bodies found between 1945, and about 1966. This of course is a very conservative estimate, since it does not include anyone incinerated in the fire storm, died after fleeing, or who was buried elsewhere for whatever reason. The consensus number of refugees in Dresden at the time of the is about 200,000 who had fled the advancing Soviet armies moving in from the east. All this is besides the point for this essay, which is about memories of war, and how it structures relationships 63 years later.

Interdisciplinary Project Update

As I described in one of my previous blogs, I am part of an inter-disciplinary research team at Fresno State University. Our team is comprised of three computer engineering students, a business student, and myself, an anthropology student. As part of their senior project, the engineers are developing a proto-type piece of technology. Our team is developing a voice-activated remote control and part of our research efforts are focusing on how to differentiate our product to make it more desirable and user-friendly than those already on the market.

As part of my research for the project, I’ve done participant observation with three different research subjects, observing remote control use. When I first began the project, remote control use seemed like something that was so very basic and mundane. I did not know what to expect because this was my first time doing this type of research. All of my previous research was conducted in public spheres. I was nervous about entering these individual’s homes, and wondered whether my observations could produce any useful data that would benefit the team’s project. However, I decided that the best way to go about it was to just jump right into it with the goal of observing the activity and environment as if it were the first time I had witnessed anything like it.

Currently I’ve completed three of the five planned observations and I have been pleasantly surprised at the results. Since I went into the environment not knowing what to expect and deciding on just writing every detail I could observe, each observation session actually ended up resulting in data that inspired new ideas for our team to research regarding product design, capability, and service. During the initial observation session I left with the research subject a design activity in which they used various shapes put together with Velcro in order to represent their ideal remote control design. This activity ended up creating valuable discussion with each of the research subjects which also inspired ideas for our product design. For example, after each of the subjects created their remote control designs they proceeded to explain each part of their design and its function. All three research subjects described their designs as simple, despite the fact that all three varied greatly in the number of functions and in the technological complexity that would accompany a true proto-type of their design. Using these three research subjects as examples, we were able to get a small glimpse of the vast amount of differences that product users might have.

While the project is still on-going and there is much work to be done, I believe that the experience of doing this type of observation in a more intimate setting (an individual’s home) has given me more confidence in doing this type of research. It will be interesting to see what further research will inspire.

The Ethics of Coercion

The Ethics of Coercion in Mass Casualty MedicineAmazon is very bad for my wallet, as I can’t help buying a book with a provocative title. In this case “The Ethics of Coercion in Mass Casualty Medicine” that I happened to spot in my random browsing. It’s one of those titles that seems contradictory on its face, how do coercion and medicine go together? I have just started the book, and its always a good sign with the preface gives you view you had not considered before. The author, Griffin Trotter, M.D., Ph. D. teaches ethics at the St. Louis University Center for Health Care Ethics, explores the issues of individual liberties vs the need for public good in providing medical treatment to large groups in the midst of a disaster. It introduced me to the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act (MSEHPA), a controversial proposal intended to prevent the spread of epidemics and bioterrorism.

Like many ethical questions, the line can be pretty blurry, and coercion in this case is essentially when the state determines it is necessary to overstep individual liberty for the common good. Individuals with highly infectious illness can be forced to remain in isolation. In situations like 9/11 and Katrina, treating the sick and injured in an effective manner means that individuals act as a unified group acting in rational ways to allow for orderly treatment and triage. Not the situation found in the typical Mass Casuality Medicine scenario.

Like I say, I just started it, but its raising provocative questions for me already.

Time to back an association for the rest of us

It is clear to me that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is rapidly becoming (already has become?) irrelevant to and un-supportive of the needs of anthropologists working in corporate, military, and other contexts where the methods are used as part of a deep, day-to-day hands-on practice. But the rift between applied and academia is an old one. I think its time to seek other options, namely to back an association independent of the AAA. It’s not to reject the AAA, it has its place, but the control of a vocal minority to press an ideological and political agenda over one of science, methods, professional practice, scholarship and open-hearted exploration has made the AAA incompatible with the professional realties of many in the practicing community. There are certainly many precedents. For example, the American Board of Forensic Anthropology: Not part of the AAA, it actually offers professional certification of its members. I know a number of archaeologists that don’t belong or go to the AAA meetings, because they have a national organization that meets their needs more closely.

I have in the past belonged to the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists (NAPA), a sub group of the AAA. Should NAPA spin out as its own organization? A very good alternative is  EPIC, which is rapidly becoming the conference of choice for anthropologists who do a wide breadth of work in applied work in corporate settings. I have never been a member of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SFAA), so I can’t speak to their activities or attitudes of inclusiveness with regards to the contexts of practicing anthropology.  Perhaps SFAA presents a viable alternative.

My thinking, however,  is that EPIC should be the epicenter of this new association.  It understands the needs of corporate work, for example, that many of us work under non-disclosure agreements. The conference also recognizes that anthropology is not the only place to get insight and inspiration. It welcomes papers and presentations from professionals in a wide range of allied fields from design to engineering and art. It is also an atmosphere that I suspect would welcome those in the military and intelligence communities based on an interest in uniqueness of the work, not the ideology of it.

What do you think? I can’t be a member of the AAA anymore if the voice vote making secret and proprietary research unethical passes (since I don’t think I or my colleagues are unethical for working for large companies). It’s really time for an alternative. I had a friend who used to tell me that there is little point in trying to date someone who doesn’t want to date you —  it leads to restraining orders at best. Let’s quit trying to change the AAA and recognize that evolution exists, even in professional organizations. We are a different profession, have different needs, and need a different code of ethics.

Choices, choices!

Cleaning the Trash

Germany is known for its green attitude towards the environment and recycling. It is a leader in wind and solar energy, and has an excellent public transportation system which keeps many of us off the roads. There are also many recycling programs, with machines that collect recyclable bottles, and pay back deposits in many grocery stores. The recycling extends even into the household where we separate, clean, and collect various kinds of trash.

Yesterday a great mystery was solved from me when we received the newsletter from the local government’s garbage collection company. Besides finding out that they have a Ph.D., Dr. Thomas Hess, running the garbage company, I found out how many kinds of trash there are. Ever since I was assigned an office with three different trash cans (one for packaging, one for paper, and a third for “the rest”), I have wondered how many types of trash there are in Germany. The brochure answered the question for me. There are eight general types of trash, all collected by the garbage company on different schedules. Besides the three already mentioned, there is bio-degradable trash, garden wastes, metal waste, big stuff (e.g. furniture) waste, and other waste. In addition, there is that aggressive recycling program for plastic bottles which carry hefty deposits, and need to be taken back to the grocery store. Tires, batteries, and other potentially toxic products are outside these categories.

The most interesting trash is the “yellow sack.” We get a fixed number of yellow trash bags to put our packaging in (extra sacks cost more), which is a mix of milk cartons, plastic packaging for consumer items, old yoghurt containers, and trash containing other types of food. This trash is picked up only once per month, and so we always make a point of washing it out so it will not stink (imagine an dirty yoghurt container in the trash for 30 days?). Some of my German friends question whether given that we all wash the trash, we use more water than we save by recycling, but I will leave that question to Dr. Hess.

The Politics of Race, American Style

As the presidential primaries roll on, I find myself increasingly contemplating the question, is the American electorate ready to elect a phenotypically black president? I want to believe that I am part of a culture that would answer, “Of course I will vote for him, if he has a sound exit strategy for Iraq, good ideas about healthcare, and a fiscal policy that makes sense to me.” Alas, you can’t always get what you want – and increasingly, we can’t seem to even get what we need.

Two stories were in the news today that raised my eyebrows, but lowered my hopes. First of all, I read that Barack Obama’s Kenyan relatives sat on plastic chairs in their village listening to the radio to see how he was doing in the primaries, “surrounded by chickens and barefoot children.” In a political climate where reports are that Fox News has already “mistakenly” pronounced Obama as Osama (Hey, that name sounds oddly familiar for some negative reason I can’t quite put my finger on….) it was noted that Obama’s grandmother, Sarah Hussein Obama (Hmmm… that sounds sort of suspicious, too…) sat in her cinderblock house waiting for news. That ought to play well in Peoria. They have emphasized and exoticized details about Obama’s family that draw attention to their foreignness and play on lingering American stereotypes of Africans. (For example, I searched for a description of Mitt Romney’s family’s chairs, or even the status of their shoes, and could find no data.)

And then there’s Tiger Woods. Yahoo Sports and others are reporting that Golf Channel anchor – let’s call her out by name – Kelly Tilghman, made the comment that “golf’s young players should lynch Tiger Woods in an alley.” How horrifying! Is it possible that she is so innocently not-racist that she has no idea why that might be a poor choice of words (to say the least)? Are we to believe that the word lynch just randomly came into her head? Or maybe they will claim that on earlier occasions she has suggested lynch mobs form for other people that annoyed her with their excellence.  I don’t know, say, the Jewish banker down the street with the nice Mercedes, or the Chinese girl in her graduating class who had 1600 on her SAT’s? Besides, isn’t “lynch in an alley” a common sports expression? As in, the Oakland Raiders were doing really well this season until the New England Patriots lynched them in an alley? I think not.

Maybe I should just go back to contemplating “Is America ready to elect a President with a vagina?” Afterall, there’s never anything depressingly misogynistic in American news, right?