Love Stories from the Cold War
Joanne Laird, blond, hazel-eyed and just getting interested in boys, was celebrating her 12th birthday on March 27, 1986, when she met Troy McLean. Their fathers, both soldiers stationed at Canadian Forces base Lahr, Germany, had taken them on a tour of Spain. Laird remembers trying hard to ignore the handsome 13-year-old with the friendly blue eyes. “We mostly stood around pretending not to look at each other,” recalls Laird, 27, now completing a master’s degree in archeology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Later that summer, the two met again at an outdoor swimming pool in Lahr, and after a few awkward moments, recalls McLean, “we were suddenly going together.”
They talked on the phone for hours each night and hung out, hand-in-hand, at the Canadian Youth Centre on the base. That December, for reasons neither can remember, Laird suddenly
dumped McLean, now 27 as well and living in Kingsville, near Windsor, Ont., where he is a computer programmer. “When you’re in Grade 7,1 guess four months with the same guy seemed like a lifetime, so I quit him,” says Laird. McLean was crushed. But, he says, “Being 13,1 just acted like I didn’t care.”
He did, though—deeply—and was hurt again that July when Laird’s family was posted to Ottawa. In fact, the pair had no contact for years, apart from a brief, almost-encounter on New Year’s Eve, 1990, in Ottawa, when Laird spotted her former flame in a shopping mall but was too nervous to approach him. But last November, McLean heard about a Web site listing the names of young people who lived at CFB Lahr during the base’s 27-year history, from 1967 to 1994. He logged on—and Laird’s name flickered across the screen. Suddenly he felt 13 again, and too bashful to e-mail her. “What was I going to say?” says McLean. “ ‘Hey, you quit me in Grade 7?’ ” But Laird was also surfing the site, and had no such hesitation. “I came home from work,” says McLean, “and there she was in my in-box.” Soon the former sweethearts were again spending hours on the phone, and on Jan. 6, 14 years after their initial breakup in Germany, they met face-to-face at a coffee shop in Kitchener, Ont., a city where both have friends. “Her first comment was, ‘Wow, you’ve grown,’ ” says McLean. Adds Laird: “He remembered that I liked the music of Corey Hart, which I thought was nice.” A long-distance romance followed; a few weeks ago, McLean gave Laird a diamond engagement ring. They plan to marry next year. “This Web site really had an impact on my life,” says McLean. “I guess it’s true what they say about first loves.”
They grew up on the Canadian Forces base in Lahr, and then lost touch. Now, communism has collapsed, the base has closed—but thanks to the Web some of these former military brats are rekindling past relationships—even marrying
At its peak in the mid-1980s, CFB Lahr, nestled in the lush Black Forest along the Rhine River in southwestern Germany, housed 6,600 soldiers. Including families, 17,000 Canadians lived there. Over the years, some 14,000 teenagers passed through the base high school. And while their parents fought the Cold War—the Lahr contingent included two infantry battle groups, an artillery regiment and a helicopter squadron—the “military brats” thoroughly enjoyed themselves. “Lahr was a three-year vacation,” says Jamie McMullin, 30, who lived in Lahr from 1987 to 1990 and is now
a parts manager with a heavy-equipment dealership in Winnipeg. “I was in Berlin when the Wall was up and I was in Russia when it was Communist,” he says. “Not many Canadians can say that.”
Liberal social attitudes, reflected in the country’s nude beaches and lack of a minimum drinking age, also made Germany especially exciting to teenagers. “Nude beaches are great at any age,” says McMullin with a laugh. “But they’re really interesting when you’re 16.” Being able to walk into a bar and order a stein of beer at age 15, or younger, often led to trouble. “Alcohol was an ongoing problem with the kids,” says Gayle Johnston, 56, a golf instructor in Charlottetown who ran the Canadian Youth Centre in Lahr from 1968 to 1987. “I took a lot of young, intoxicated people home in my car,” she recalled. “More than one got sick in the backseat.”
The brats, who usually spent about three years in Lahr, found it all but impossible to keep in touch with friends upon remming to Canada—all they were left with were memories of some of the best times of their lives. Then, in 1997, Claire Gagné, 42, an Edmonton mother of two who, as a teenager, lived in Lahr from 1972 to 1976, purchased a home computer for her family. She immediately logged on to the Internet, hoping to find a Web site linking her to some of her old friends from Lahr. “There was nothing,” says Gagné. “Not one name or home page.”
Gagné did manage to locate a couple of department of national defence Web sites listing the whereabouts of former military per-
sonnel. She e-mailed everyone who indicated they had been based in Germany, asking if their children would like to be listed on a site serving the Lahr brats. More than 50 messages later, she had received just four responses. Undeterred, she launched a Web page, entided The Lahr Senior High School Brat Web Site, with five names, including her own. The response was immediate. “After that, names and information just started arriving by e-mail,” Gagné says. “I knew there would be others like me.”
Gagnés site continues to grow by an average of 20 new names per month and now lists the whereabouts of more than 1,086 military brats. “This project has become more than I ever expected,” says Gagné. “It’s like people have had a void all these years, and then they find my site and all the information they’ve been searching for is right there.”
Nostalgia for Lahr is so great that people using Gagnés site to find their old friends have staged a series of roving high-school reunions, events that keep growing in size. About 350 brats attended a 1997 reunion in Calgary; last year, on August 4, 900 showed up in Ottawa. Another reunion is scheduled for Halifax in 2003, and organizers are expecting more than 1,200 people. Kim Herron, a St. Albert, Alta., stay-at-home mom who lived in Lahr from 1970 to 1974, was so moved by Gagnés site that she launched her own, called Lahr Revisited. One of 40 Lahr sites that have sprung up, it includes a chat room and highschool yearbooks dating back to 1967. “I was dumbfounded when I found Gagnés site,” says Herron, 43. “I couldn’t believe anyone went to the trouble of doing this. We military brats were scattered to the four winds when we left Lahr.”
Nathalie Gagnon, 30, first met Michael Wease in the summer of 1987 when she was a lifeguard at the base swimming pool. Gagnon says she thought Wease, now 32, had nice eyes but was immature. “At school dances, he would ask me to slow dance and then his hands would wander where they shouldn’t,” recalls Gagnon. “He went about it the wrong way, if you know what I mean.”
Gagnon and Wease, who were on the Lahr High School trackand-field team together, still became good friends. But like thousands of brats, they lost touch with each other after their families left Lahr. In 1993, Gagnon graduated from the University of Ottawa, and became the head athletic therapist at the school. She often thought of him and then, last year, both Gagnon and Wease, who now works as a production-line supervisor at Sterling Ltd., a London, Ont., truck manufacturer, learned about Gagnés Web site and the planned Ottawa reunion.
Both went. “I was interested to see his name on the reunion list and curious to see how he was doing,” says Gagnon, who recently left her job at the university. “These things are a bit strange. You’re wondering what people will look like and how they may have changed.” The two liked what they saw, and spent most of the next week together. The day after Wease returned to London, they had an eight-hour phone conversation. Wease was soon spending his weekends in Ottawa. “He convinced me that he had matured,” says Gagnon, chuckling. On Dec. 22, 2000, Wease proposed. Gagnon, who is now looking for work in London, accepted, and they plan to marry on Oct. 6 in Ottawa.
‘Lahr was a three-year vacation,’ says one former military brat
Friendships have also been rekindled. Julie Paynter, 24, a freelance photographer in Midland, Ont., lived in Lahr from 1985 to 1989 when she was in Grades 3 through 6. She was close to three girls—Kyndra Lund, an American whose father was stationed near Lahr, and Rhiannon Banks and Joanne Inglis, whose parents—all British nationals—held civilian jobs on the base. The four best friends were inseparable while at Westend, the Canadian elementary school in Lahr. They called themselves CAB, which stood for “Canadian, American and Two Brits.” They adopted the theme song from the TV show The Golden Girls—Thank-you for Being a Friend —and wore identical T-shirts that read “CABs” on the front, and “Canadian, American and British” on the back. “On weekends wed have sleepovers at each others houses,” says Paynter. “We were never apart.”
Until the summer of 1989, when Paynter s family was posted to CFB Borden, 90 km north ofToronto. “Coming back to Canada was terribly hard—I think I cried for months,” says Paynter. “It was especially difficult because the other three stayed behind and went on to junior high.” Paynter always thought of her three friends, and last November she found them all on Gagnés Web site. Today, Lund is a paralegal living in Cedar Hills, Utah, Banks is a library assistant in Cardiff, Wales, and Inglis is an English teacher in Ede, in the Netherlands. A couple of times each week, the friends now conduct four-way online chats. “We spent the first few months updating each other on what we’ve been doing over the last few years,” says Paynter. “Now we just chat like we used to at recess.” In April, Inglis, Lund and Banks met in London, the first time they’d seen each other in 10 years. Paynter, who had just bought a house with her husband, could not afford the trip. “My heart broke,” she says. But the CABs plan to meet again this Decem-
ber in Newport Beach, Calif., and Paynter is already saving for the trip. “Military brats don’t have many friendships that last long because of all the moving you do,” she says. “So to find some good friends you’ve lost touch with is really gratifying.”
Marie-France Perrier, 44, lived in Lahr from 1969 to 1971 when she was in junior high. She hung around with a large group of friends that included John Kulak (not his real name—he asked that a pseudonym be used), who was one year older than her. In 1971, Perrier’s family was posted to CFB Cornwallis, just outside of Digby in Nova Scotia. Perrier, then 14, was deeply saddened by the move, but, a few years later, thrilled when a newly enlisted 18-year-old—Pte. John Kulak—arrived in Cornwallis for basic training. Their friendship turned into a romance that lasted for the four months of Kulak’s induction, and continued when he moved to Halifax for further training. “He drove down from Halifax to see me every second weekend,” says Perrier, now a human resources adviser in Ottawa with the federal ministry of natural resources. “It was wonderful. He even gave me a promise ring. That’s how serious it was.”
At the end of that summer, Perrier’s family was to be transferred to Ottawa. She was looking forward to making the most of the few months they had left together. But one weekend in July, Kulak failed to arrive at her house. “I was devastated,” says Perrier, who believed she had been dumped and out of anger refused to track him down. “I spent the next 30 years wondering where he was.” What Perrier did not know was that Kulak had been in a car accident while driving to see her and ended up hospitalized in Halifax for several months. When he was released, Perrier’s family had moved, and Kulak, equally miffed at her, did not try to
locate her. In 1999, Perrier’s sister, Brigitte, told her about Gagnés Web site. “I freaked,” says Perrier, who immediately logged on, hoping to find Kulak. She listed her own e-mail address on the site’s “Lost Friends” section, asking anyone who knew Kulak’s whereabouts to contact her.
No response. Then, in March of this year, Perrier logged on to Gagnés site and saw Kulak’s younger brother listed as a new entrant. She immediately e-mailed, and on March 16 received an e-mail from Kulak explaining what had happened 28 years earlier. They spent the next two months catching up on the telephone, pushing Perrier’s monthly bills to more than $300. On May 17, Perrier flew to Red Deer, Alta., where Kulak now lives and works as a purchasing manager at a hospital. Their romance reignited; Kulak now says it’s as if they were never apart. And Perrier? “The whole thing is like a movie,” she says. “When I was telling the girls at work all this they were freaking out and crying. It’s really something. Thank God foç that Web site.”
Rob Greenfield, a 46-year-old English teacher at Canadore College in North Bay, Ont., lived in Lahr from 1969 to 1972. His Junior B hockey team, the Lahr Junior Canadians,
played 60 games a year across Europe, facing off against both the German and Dutch national junior teams. Then came the inevitable moves and old teammates lost touch.
By the mid-1990s, though, Greenfield became consumed by a dream—to get his | old team together again. The only stum| bling block: “I had to find everyone,” “ Greenfield says. He turned to the Internet for help, and, in 1998, to Gagnés Web site. By 1999, he had assembled a squad of 18 former Lahr Junior Canadians, from such disparate places as Halifax, Victoria and Los Angeles, who took part in an annual senior’s hockey tournament in Kemptville, just outside of Ottawa. Their old coach, retired sergeant Ed Swain, was back behind the bench and the team even attracted a cheering section of some 30 women—former military brats known as the Hooter Girls because they hoot and holler. “It’s a weekend to be 17 again,” says Greenfield. “It’s like reliving your youth.”
Reliving your youth—and a wonderful youth it was. Gagné still fondly remembers bicycling through the medieval villages around Lahr. Those memorable times, she says, were partly made possible by the generous allowances given to soldiers living overseas. “My dad drove a Mercedes when we were over there,” she says. “We could never live like that in Canada. Not as a military family. It was great, but it wasn’t like real life.” Now, she says, to keep those memories alive, it’s important for people to re-establish the relationships they’ve lost over the years. “What really gets to me,” she says, “is when people send me an e-mail saying they have been up all night in their pyjamas, reading my Web site with tears in their eyes. Those are the best thank-yous.” That, and the stories of loves and friendships rekindled. E3
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