By James E. Horn
I really don’t (always) believe in spirits, or do I?
I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly pragmatic, straight forward type of guy, not very spooky, and stable.
I do believe in GOD. Given that, I suppose that acknowledging certain spirits is OK.
In fact, I believe that a spirit visited me recently. I was doing something, when suddenly; a profoundly vivid recollection of a man I had not thought of for over forty years came to my mind. I thought that I had completely forgotten all about Baumgartner. I believe that his spirit just passed by me, fleetingly, as though he was visiting to bid me farewell, as he was passing on to heaven. I was profoundly sad for a few seconds, and then I felt good. Baumgartner was now free of his demons.
Baumgartner (I don’t recall his first name) was a passing thing in my life. I met him when I was stationed at the U.S. Naval Air Facility, a NATO base located at Sigonella, Sicily, a long time ago, in 1961. I was a nineteen year old sailor, and we were assigned to that base. I was a radioman (sparks, they called us, or sparkey). I was pretty good at Morse code, and worked military communications proficiently. I was proud, confident, perhaps a bit arrogant or cocky. None of us used first names much.
Our “radio shack” had just moved from an old, converted adobe farm house on that new NATO base into a new operations center. The new work spaces were neat after that old farm house.
In the armed forces, people get assigned and reassigned regularly. Every month or two, one of us Radiomen would come in to Sigonella on assignment, or depart to another assignment, somewhere in the far reaches of the world.
I had already been there for over a year, and Baumgartner was a new arrival. Baumgartner was a First Class Petty Officer (RM1) with four golden hash marks on his sleeve indicating 16+ years of service, all of it honorable. I had recently been promoted to Third Class Petty Officer (RM3).
In 1961, a First Class Radioman usually knew his stuff, especially after sixteen years. In those days, most Radiomen made it to RM1 within 6-8 years, and with 16-years of service should have been a Chief or Senior Chief Petty Officer. Something wasn’t right, or routine.
In fact, Baumgartner didn’t know much about communications at all. He just tried to push his rank around, not a good thing to do. He acted like a typical Boson’s mate. Being who I was, having a guy who didn’t know diddly doodoo about a Navy radio room and communications center bossing me around rankled me. My being one to not suffer fools gladly, the sparks flew, and we clashed. Once the dust settled, we started working together.
I learned that Baumgartner had been a Bosun’s Mate (deck ape, or deck hand) for most of his navy career, and had just managed to convert over to Radioman.
In those days, guys usually became lowly deck hands because they generally weren’t considered to be very bright or had other limitations. They often didn’t have what it took to learn the more technical jobs, like military communications with radio receivers, transmitters, antennas, radio wave propagation, Morse Code, teletype machines, routers, cipher machines, cryptographic code systems, basic electronics, etc. Because nearly everyone looked down on the intellectually inferior class of Boson’s Mates, they, in turn were a rather gung ho, often aggressive and sensitive group. Baumgartner fit the bill.
Baumgartner was a swarthy, balding guy about 5’-9” tall. He was sturdy from his many years of hard labor on the decks of destroyers, cruisers and other ships. He was not what I would consider attractive. He was tough in a hard way.
After he admitted (in his own way) that he didn’t know much about military communications, we agreed that I’d work with him, and we got to work together. It wasn’t easy, he tested my patience, and I tested his temper. But, we made it work. He applied himself and earned my respect. I earned his respect, too. He worked hard and learned what he needed to know.
Back in the barracks, he, ranked First Class had nicer, more spacious quarters in our open barracks which were separated only by partitions. With more space allocated, he could spread out, and one of his first acquisitions was a nice Telefunken console stereo system which we all admired. Then, he started playing his music – opera. OPERA! What the hell was that screeching, howling sound? Did someone have a cockle burr stuck up their behind? Where were the drums and twangy (as in Duane Eddy) guitars? It was awful. That “music” was in fact Baumgartner’s passion. He loved opera. I later learned that when he was aboard ships (back when the Sixth Fleet’s home port was at Cannes, France), he spent his off time attending French operas and ballet performances. He was clearly an unusual and rare sailor, not a run-of-the-mill deck hand. He never drank beer or booze, only an occasional glass of kosher wine. Here we had a hard case Boson’s mate who was sober.
In the mess hall, few wanted to share a table with Baumgartner. He was a gluttonous slob. He slathered his bread with layers of butter, and half of the time ate with his hands, shoveling the food into his maw, leaving grease on his face. He was disgusting. He devoured everything on his mess tray, as though he was starving.
Still, Baumgartner and I warmed, and I began, little by little to learn from him, about him.
Baumgartner was a Jew. He was the first Jew that I remember getting to know personally. I was curious and wanted to learn more. Baumgartner was a German Jew. And, he hated Germans. That was a part of our early misunderstandings because I spoke German and dated German tourist girls who took their vacations at the lovely Sicilian beaches.
Baumgartner had no family. They had all died during the holocaust, murdered by the Nazis. He, himself was a death camp survivor. After getting out of the camps as a desperate, hungry, forlorn child, and then (eventually) out of Germany to the USA when he was sixteen, he had enlisted in the Navy at the age of eighteen, during the Korean War. The Navy was his only home and his therefore it was his life. He did have a woman whom he loved and pined for, but she was untouchable for him. She was a French ballet dancer, out of Baumgartner’s class.
Baumgartner was looking forward to serving out his thirty years in the Navy. I asked about his plans. He indicated that after he retired from the Navy, he was going to emigrate to the new Jewish homeland where he could live amongst his own. He was going to Israel.
Soon, as things go in the Navy, it became time for me to transfer away from Sigonella, and I moved on, and soon forgot about Baumgartner – for forty-five years, until a fleeting but very sure feeling of his passing presence.
Farewell my friend, and God bless you, Baumgartner