Finding the Words

by Keith Dale
Texas, USA

Finding the Words

In 1985 I lived near Stuttgart, West Germany. I had taken a semester of German in college, and the standard Department of Defense introductory language course, but wasn’t fluent in German. We lived in an apartment in a quaint village. I could navigate towns, find the Bahnhof (train station), and order from simple menus. But a “real” conversation was beyond my abilities.

Days I cared for my 4-year-old son while my wife worked as an Army officer. Then I worked as a DoD contractor on “swing shift”, 4:00 p.m. until midnight. By midnight, driving home was a tired chore. I fought sleep by looking for objects beside the road.

One night I spied a tennis shoe and sleepily thought, “A shoe!” Next I noted, “Some paper.” I observed a body in the middle of the road. “A body.” I saw the other shoe. “Aha, a pair!” Then I shouted out loud, “A BODY!?!”

I swerved right and screeched to a halt. I sprinted up the road to the person lying prone. Suddenly I realized: this could be a setup. Terrorist activity against U.S. personnel was increasing in Germany then. Feeling misplaced invulnerability, I kept running.

The “body” was very much alive, German, in his early 40s, and clutching his chest fearfully. Walking beside the road he had experienced chest pains. He purposefully fell down in the road where he would be spotted.

I reacted to the terror in this man’s eyes by wanting to comfort him. With fingers on his pulse, I used a calm voice. Had he had heart problems before? Any existing medical conditions? Was he taking medication? Had he been drinking or taking drugs? Did he live nearby? I told him that he would be just fine.

His pulse calmed from 180 to 120 beats per minute. I told him that I’d been a lifeguard for five years and just finished a CPR refresher course. In answer to his heart-wrenching question, I told him that he would NOT die while I was there!

Then I heard a bus coming down the hill. I needed to flag it down, so I tore away, ran up the hill and stood in the road waving.

The startled bus driver agreed to drive ahead 300 meters to the Polizei (Police) station for help. In three minutes a German police officer arrived and took control. He took my information, then released me. I was glad to step back! I told my newest best friend that he’d be fine. He repeated, “I love Americans. Thank you!”

Back in the safety of my car, my body shook as I relived the last 10 minutes. Everyone had spoken fluent English …but no, I realized that the conversations were in German!

Sudden German fluency had emerged to comfort a person in terrible need. I still don’t know how. I’ve thought long and hard about it. Perhaps the lesson is that the language of compassion and caring is all that’s necessary to be understood.

Editor’s Note: Keith Dale is also the author of “The Man Who Cares”, about talks show host Montel Williams. That story is in the first HS book:

Originally published as HeroicStories #329 on Aug 8, 2002

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