LOS ANGELES - In celebrating the diversity of America, the United States government recognizes the heritage of each group of ethnic Americans virtually every month of the year. May has been designated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and, in observation of it, I was invited by the U.S. Department of Defense to tour seven military bases in Germany.
Asian Pacific American heritage is a topic that I have spoken on before but I sensed that the Star Trek magnet had something to do with the invitation as well. I accepted the invitation with relish.
Last month, the war in Iraq was an issue that had many in our nation -- and the world -- at odds with each other. But, whether hawk or dove or an owl somewhere in between, I think many of us felt a strong connection with the U.S. and British soldiers on the battlefield. They were our friends and neighbors out there in Iraq. Their courage and sacrifice, their professionalism and technological effectiveness, were amazing. I swelled with pride as I saw the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein brought down by our combat forces.
As I watched the news on television, I saw something else. I saw an American military that I had not seen before. I saw both men and women of all races as soldiers, and, distressingly, as prisoners of war and as casualties. I saw a U.S. military that truly reflected the vast diversity of American society today. I wanted to visit the military communities in Germany to thank our soldiers for a job well done and their families for their sacrifices. I also wanted to applaud the U.S. Army for its progressive diversity program. This rare opportunity was something like a non-singing, non-dancing, all-talking Bob Hope tour of our military communities in Germany. In addition, as it turned out, the tour included convivial gatherings with groups of Star Trek friends as well.
It was a whirlwind tour. Two nights in Bamberg, a couple of nights in Ansbach, then on to Hohenfels, a night in Heidelberg, then two in Darmstadt, a weekend in Mannheim, then on to Wurzburg. It was constant packing and unpacking, meeting the brass and signing autographs for the soldiers, traveling from one base to another with my speech, "A Salute to Liberty" on Asian Pacific American heritage, at each base as the centerpiece. I collected plaques, beer steins, commemorative coins, and other gifts after each speech. The welcome was tremendous. The tour was exhilarating and enlightening. I saw and experienced so much. A tour of the Combat Maneuver Training Center at Hohenfels, with cutting edge technology combined with a Hollywood back-lot style recreation of a Slavic village complete with Slavic-speaking villagers more believable than any Hollywood extra, was most impressive. At Ansbach, I sat in an Apache helicopter wearing a high tech helmet equipped with night vision targeting lens. I visited storybook villages with cobble-stoned streets that were hundreds of years old. I toured regal palaces. The Residence, the palatial home of the Bishop prince of Wurzburg, was gloriously restored after the devastating bombing it suffered during World War II.
The formal garden at the palace of Swartzengen was almost as spectacular as the one at Versailles. In a magnificent sarcophagus on the altar of the Cathedral of Bamberg are the remains of the only Pope outside of the Vatican. In Bamberg, I discovered a great beer unique to that town called routbier that has a rich, dusky tang like smoke. It has to be tasted to be appreciated. The tour was memorable, made even more unforgettable by a vegetable called spargel -- a rare, seasonal white asparagus. I happened to be there at the height of spargel season. As an honored guest of constantly changing hosts, this prized delicacy was served to me at almost every dinner at each stop. As a good guest, I enjoyed the spargel until it almost grew out of my ears. The welcome was generous and warmly embracing. Glowing memories of my tour of Germany will be with me forever. My heartiest appreciations to all of the good people at each of the military communities I visited for their grand hospitality. And a special note of thanks to Sharon Yelder of the U.S. Department of Defense in Germany. She is the indefatigable problem-solver who initiated the idea of my visit and coordinated the entire trip with grace and skill.
Wherever I go, there are communities of Star Trek friends as well. I had visited Mannheim less than six months ago for a Star Trek convention but there we were together again - organized by dear Sylvia Strybuc.
This was another wonderful opportunity to enjoy a convivial Saturday evening with old friends and new fans. Roger Hofstetter and friends even drove in from Basel, Switzerland, to join us. It was wonderful.
At the end of my military tour, I gave myself a few days in Munich. Filip Krejcik, a friend who lives not far from Munich, picked me up for a visit to his village, Deggendorf. He had even arranged for a guide from the city tourist bureau. Deggendorf is a charming, formerly walled village with an historic Rathaus or city hall. We climbed the ancient stone steps of the Rathaus spire to its very top. We saw the quarters of the keeper of the spire who rang the old city bell. The view from his window was panoramic.
From the medieval spire of the Rathaus, we strolled through the village down to the primordial flow of the great river of Europe, the Danube. A lone sculler was practicing on the fast-flowing water. That evening, we had a specially prepared dinner at Filip's new restaurant called Vis a Vis. It was salmon served with that special recurring treat, spargel -- another unforgettable dining experience.
One day of my stay in Munich was spent at a somber historic landmark nearby - the concentration camp at Dachau. Today, it is a museum of the inconceivable horrors that went on there. At the entrance is a wrought iron gate with the words, "Arbeit macht frei" - work makes you free - shaped in iron into it. Two of the barracks that housed the prisoners have been rebuilt. The others are only indicated by the row after row of the concrete foundations that remain. The gas showers and the crematorium remain chillingly as they were right beside each other. The main administration building, which also housed the kitchen and washroom, is the principal exhibit area. It is hard to walk through the displays of such barbarous inhumanity. I learned that the concentration camp was built in 1933 as a prison initially for the political opponents of the Nazis.
Then the gypsies were rounded up, followed by the homosexuals, then the religious leaders. It was after "kristallnacht," - the night of the anti-Jewish rampage in November 1938 - that the Jews began to be brought to Dachau. It was a sobering reminder that injustice against any isolated minority, no matter how distant and unrelated, becomes a menace to me. In the climate of terrorist anxiety today, we must be mindful that the threat to the civil liberties of Arab Americans also becomes an assault on me. It is, as well, a threat to the fundamental ideals of America. As I viewed the exhibit at Dachau, I understood profoundly why we Americans celebrate Asian Pacific American heritage in the month of May and observe the heritage of other groups throughout the year. We are all connected. Out of the dark lessons of history, I hope we can forge a brighter tomorrow.