The summer of 1988. Jenkintown. A suburb of Philadelphia. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On the East Coast of the United States of America. 152 Walnut Street. An American Queen Ann. The home of my grandmother. Grammom to me. Born in 1900 she was eighty-eight at that time. Born in 1959 I was twenty-nine.
I either drove or rode my bicycle over to Grammom’s house. It was only a few miles from where my mother and stepfather lived. And where I was living for the summer months. Until my flight to Berlin West to begin graduate school.
Grammom’s house. I offered to paint her front porch and a few of the rooms inside the house. It gave me something to do. And allowed me to spend time with my grandmother. I had always liked that house, and had always liked Jenkintown.
A borough. Almost like a village. Just about everything you needed within walking distance. Church. Post office. Public library. Drugstore. Bank. Restaurants. Cafés. Major road with bus service. A small, old-fashioned movie theater with a large screen. And the local commuter train station taking passengers into Center City Philadelphia.
I had made the decision a few months earlier. To head back to Germany. To enroll in a German university. Improve my German. Take graduate level courses. At the same time to apply to three top East Coast American universities in order to study International Relations. If not get accepted then trigger Plan B. Stay in Germany and study International Relations. Die Freie Universität West Berlin. On the front lines of the Cold War.
I had lived in Germany in 1982. In May a year earlier I had been graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, DC. With a B.A. in History. Mostly European History. Including my senior year a two-semester survey course in German History. I ate it up. Could not get enough of it. German was also my foreign language at Georgetown.
Graduation weekend at Georgetown in May of 1981. I had no plans. Had not even thought about my next steps. I’m a bit of a dreamer. Or simply irresponsible. I suspect that they go hand in hand. My classmates were off to law school or to medical school or to one of the banks in New York City.
My mother turns to me and says: “John, why don’t you go to Germany for a year? You really enjoyed your course on German History. You’ve taken German as a foreign language. We are mostly German background.” She must have gotten that from her fried, Frankie Kroll, who had a daughter majoring in German at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and was spending the summer in Germany.
Many years later, decades actually, I would come to resent my mother, to be angry at her, for her inability to give me, or any of my other five siblings, any kind of life advice, guidance, suggestions. That resentment, that anger, has since dissipated, almost fully disappeared. But when it does glimmer up a bit I extinguish quickly by saying to myself: “Wait, John, it was Mom who made the suggestion that you go to Germany. How great was that!”
May 1981 graduation from Georgetown. That summer I worked as a roofer. Lankenau Hospital just outside of West Philadelphia. Very physical work. Up early. At the site early. Knocked off mid-afternoon. I loved it. Fun group of guys. Ukrainian immigrants. Hard-working.
September 1981 I fly from JFK in New York City to Frankfurt. First time outside the U.S. Wait, I’ll tell this story later on. That first year in Germany. Perhaps I should introduce myself. Or, to be more precise, introduce the John Otto Magee of the summer of 1988. Heading over to his grandmother’s to paint, and to think, to have conversations with Grammom.
I’m a man. Male. That’s my sex. That’s my gender. They are one and the same. My citizenship was American. Citizen of the United States of America. Also referred to as the USA. It still is my citizenship. Ethnically I am mostly German and Irish with some Scottish.
Magee is Northern Ireland Scottish. Protestant. A Magee with his wife and several small children took a boat from Glasgow to Baltimore at some point in the laste 1800s. My mother’s maiden name was Hentz. Her father, Otto Henry Hentz, born in 1899 in Covington, Kentucky just outside of Cincinnati, was all German. My mother’s mother, Grammom, was a McBride. From Cincinnati. All Irish.
So, my father, Frank Harris Magee, was Scots-Irish. My mother, Laura Catherine Hentz, was half German and half Irish. That makes me, John Otto Magee, mostly German and Irish with some Scot.
My race? I’m a member of the human race. There are no subcategories of the human race. All this talk about race, for hundreds of years, and especially these days, is total nonsense. Race does not exist. There is no such thing as the black race or the white race or the brown race. Black. White. Brown. Those are colors. Are the Asians the yellow race? How absurd.
Skin pigmentation, yes that exists. Some ethnic groups have a lighter or a darker skin pigmentation than others. However, that’s not race, that’s skin pigmentation. Most refer to it as color. The more precise term is pigmentation.
I’m a Christian. Roman Catholic. Greatly influenced by the Jesuits. This, and my ethnicity, are the core of who I am. By background. And by choice. A very complex subject. No need to go into it here.
I attended a Catholic Elementary school in Abington, outside of Philadelphia. Our Lady Help of Christians was our parish. OLHC. Affectionately referred to by us pupils as Old Ladies Hotrod Club. Funny. I then attended a public high school. Lower Moreland. About 1,300 students.
Then Georgetown University. History. Liberal arts. I got a liberal arts education from a Jesuit university on the East Coast of the United States, located in the nation’s capital.
I grew up with an older sister and four brothers. Two brothers older than me. Two younger. Our sister was the oldest. Our neighborhood was full of mostly boys. Born in the middle to late 1950s and into the 1960s there were a lot of us around. Always more than enough to get a pickup game of basketball or football going.
My father was a business consultant. An only-child born in Philadelphia in 1930. Raised in the suburb of Cheltenham. Educated at a private high school, Penn Charter, then received his B.A. in Psychology from Amherst College in Massachusetts. My father worked in Human Resources at Campbell Soups, where he solved a vexing company-internal packaging and logistics problem.
That rather ingenious solution was promptly written up in a trade journal, which led to him being recruited by a Philadelphia-based consulting company. After seven years of successful work for them my father struck out on his own. Frank Harris Magee was successful, well-respected, and in great demand.
His heart, however, was not up to it. Massive heart attack in 1965 at the age of thirty-five. A second heart attack just two years later. The first in Detroit. The second in either Montreal or Toronto. His heart gave out on November 19, 1974. In Abington Hospital. A few miles from our home. He was forty-four years of age. I was fifteen. Tommy, our youngest, was only eleven.
It rocked us. Destabilized us. Something you only come to recognize, and perhaps understand, many years later, if at all. And not just us children. Just as much, maybe even moreso, our mother. Who, at the very tender age of just seven, became fatherless, when her father died several days after an automobile accident. In the year 1937. He was only thirty-eight years of age. Leaving my grandmother, Martha Hentz (Grammom), with seven small children ages one to eight, and pregnant with a son to be named Otto. At the height of the Depression.
Family dynamics, family psyches, we don’t need a Ph.D in Psychology to know how complex they are, to know how much they form who we are, how we think, how we react. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know, or at least sense, that they exert tremendous influence on the choices we make.
An influence so great, so deep, so fundamental, that we cannot separate them from who we are. In fact, we are, for the most part, where we come from, what has been imparted to us, who has influenced us. And not just in terms of behavior, often called nurture. But also, perhaps even moreso, by nature. Passed on to us by our parents. In our DNA, so to say. Some experts have even begun to find evidence that much is passed on to us in vitro, in the womb, from our mother to us directly.
I am John Otto Magee. Male. American. East Coast. Pennsylvania. Philadelphia. Suburb. German Irish Scottish. Christian. Roman Catholic. One of six children. Catholic elementary school. Public high school. Football. Basketball. Jesuit university. Student of History. Son of Frank. Athlete, student, consultant. Died young. Son of Laura. Background German Irish, deeply Roman Catholic, college-educated in History. Fatherless at age seven. Widow at age forty-four.
Those were the key coordinates of who I was. Back then. In the summer of 1988. Painting the front porch and some rooms. At my grandmother’s home. At 152 Walnut Street, in Jenkintown, in Pennsylvania, with the ZIP code 19046. Just a few months before my flight from JFK to Flughafen Tegel in what then was Berlin West.
More than thirty-four years ago. I’ll try to tell the story. I think it’s an interesting one. It might have some valuable lessons, at least insights. Perhaps of value to its readers. But no promises. Each of us has our character weaknesses. I have more than a handful. One is vascillation. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Hopefully, start again. I’ll do my best.