The Power of German Chocolate Cake

I recently read that an increasing number of Americans wants to remove from our schools’ curricula anything that reflects poorly on their states or the United States as a country. Like teaching the history of racism because, they say, it’s unpleasant for children to think about slavery and its legacy.

So, the thinking goes, simply remove the teaching of racism from schools and then pretend the whole thing never happened.

Trouble is, it did happen and is happening.

“The realities of race and racism in the United States are uncomfortable. But we can teach about these realities in ways that allow that discomfort to happen while also moving past it to real understanding.” ~ National Institute of Education 

This matter of race relations and bigotry is the original sin of America. Consider this fact: for 50 of America’s first 61 years our presidents were also slaveholders. Racism and bigotry were baked into our country’s DNA.

To be finally done with it we’ll need not only more legislation but a powerful dose of charity and tolerance injected into the hearts of each of us.

Here’s the story of my first dose:

Growing up, as I did, in the years following the Second World War, the Germans and the Japanese were still seen by many as the enemy.

It seemed like every dad who’d served in either Europe or the South Pacific had stories of bloody battles fought against the “Japs” or “Krauts.”

So when a former German soldier’s family moved in next door to us it was a really scary event. Just imagine it: the enemy — living next door.

My neighbors were aghast and we were left swimming in the murky stream of bitter resentment.

Our new neighbor, Otto Deckinger, had served with distinction in the German army and had the medals to prove it. He was a baker by trade and had two children.

The kids on the block constantly tormented his son, Rudy.

  • starting fist fights 
  • yelling ugly slurs
  • keeping him off teams

He was seen as an extension of his dad — an enemy.

Of course, we all were taking our cues from our parents, building ever higher walls to hide from our growing fears.

Then Big Bill Browning stepped in and tore down the wall. 

Bill was a World War II veteran, a boilermaker by trade, and strong as an ox. He had a young son with a disability, so he knew something about how the weak are preyed upon.

One day, the neighborhood bullies ganged up on Rudy and were pummeling him unmercifully. Out of nowhere Bill Browning came running down the street, jumped into the scrum and began peeling off the bullies like rag dolls.

Big Bill Browning was a — for real — tough guy.

He announced, in no uncertain terms, we would end this war on Independence Day at 3 pm.

This is when I witnessed a neighborhood master class in ending intolerance. 

Bill got the idea that he and Otto would host a picnic in Otto’s back yard and invite the whole block. Bill would grill hamburgers and Otto would bring his legendary German chocolate cake. So at precisely 3 pm on Independence Day a picnic for the ages commenced.

The whole block (including the bullies) feasted, laughed, made friends and gorged on hamburgers, watermelon and German chocolate cake. 

Big Bill gathered everyone around and shared a gripping war story from his time in the South Pacific. Then he asked Otto to share a story from his time in a prison camp in North Africa.

It was very emotional.

He then gestured to Otto, took both his hands, raised them up and declared from this day forward:

  • we’re all friends,
  • we’re al neighbors,
  • we’re all Americans.

My neighbors let out a cheer and, it can be said, our war finally came to an end.

Bill and Otto had injected us all with a strong dose of humanity.

I remember afterwards talking with Rudy about baseball and discovering he was a big fan of Vada Pinson, just like I was. In fact, he was kid who had fears, yearnings, hopes and dreams, just like I had.

It’s been said when someone is headed down the wrong road, they don’t need motivation to speed them up. What they need is education to turn them around…

…and maybe a few slices of German chocolate cake.

Just a thought…


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