A contribution to international relations

During a layover at the Denver airport some years ago I heard a commotion just a few yards away.

Two teenage boys, accompanied by a handful of other teenagers, were boisterously greeting one another. Not an uncommon sight at airports, except these young men were speaking in German.

After a round of introductions, the young men resumed their excited conversation in German until the boarding call for Spokane was announced. Then, one of the boys headed for the jet way while the other waved goodbye.

Upon finding my seat on the plane, I discovered that I was sitting next to the young German lad.

“Looks like the flight is full,” I said.

“Ja. Many people,” he responded.

“I couldn’t help hearing your conversation in the airport,” I asked curiously. “Are you from Germany?”

He said he was and went on to explain that he was an exchange student bound for a small town near Spokane where he would live with a farm family for six months. The other young man at the airport, he explained, was a friend from his hometown in Germany who was an exchange student in Wyoming.

I explained that some of my ancestors, including my grandfather, were born in Germany. We seemed to have an instant rapport and before long we were talking about his hometown in Germany, his family and his career plans.

He was an intelligent young man and seemed mature beyond his sixteen years. After a brief lull in the conversation he turned to me and with an expression that belied his mature appearance. He asked if I knew anything about farms. He was concerned, he said, about what life on a farm would be like.

I told him I had spent my youth on farms and in very small Iowa farm towns and I would try to answer any questions.

His hometown in Germany was a large city of several hundred thousand. For the next half hour he inundated me with questions: What is there to do on the farm? Is it safe on a farm? What are farm kids like?

He told me about his host family and how they had already corresponded for several months. The family included a son one year older than he and a daughter one year younger.

He was concerned about the small high school he would be attending in Washington; only 150 students in the entire school. His school in Germany had thousands of students.

I told him that my graduating class had only 42 students and we had a great time. I went on to explain that in this small school he would be a celebrity.

“Celebrity?” he asked, reaching for his pocket-sized word book.

“Sure, everyone in school will want to get to know you and learn all about you and Germany!” Thinking of a rock star of that time I asked, “Have you heard of Madonna?”

“Madonna? Ja!” he exclaimed with a big grin.

“Well, Madonna is a celebrity.”

He thought for a few seconds. “Me … a celebrity? No!”

About that time the captain announced that we were about to begin our descent into Spokane. As the plane sped through the darkness the young German remained very quiet.

Several minutes passed before he spoke again. “I hope my host family likes me,” he said.

“Of course they will,” I assured him. “I know rural families well and I’m confident they will like you very much.”

He remained silent for the rest of the flight. As we left the plane we exchanged good-byes and good wishes.

In the terminal a family of four was anxiously scanning the deplaning passengers and quickly spotted my seat mate.

“Henk?” the woman asked in a motherly tone.

He could barely respond with a “ja” before he was swamped in hugs, handshakes and back pats.

I can imagine the stories Henk told his urban friends back home about riding horses under clear, blue Washington skies; of feeding cattle; of attending a high school where everyone knew each other. And of a kind American farm fam ily that made a much greater contribution to the future of American-German relations than they may ever know.

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