How I broke the German code, singlehandedly

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John Stanger

When I was a young guy and my family members didn't want me to know what they were discussing, they would talk in their special code, which was German. All adult family members spoke the language, even though they had been born in the United States and spoke perfect Midwestern English.

My grandparents were both raised in German-speaking homes in Springfield, but my grandmother didn't speak English until she was 9 because she went to the "German school" until she finished fourth grade

In regard to the rest of the family, my uncle Gene had interrogated German prisoners during World War II, so he was able to fully participate in "code talking." My dad spoke only English, although he was fairly conversant in German. My mother and my uncle Hubert could speak German, but they rarely said anything in that language except when they really didn't want me to understand the gist of a conversation.

Well, I played dumb and picked up a working knowledge of "the code," so I knew what they were saying. I never let on about what I understood, but when I was 12 I let the cat out of the bag when I laughed at a joke that my grandfather told in German.

Many of their "German" comments dealt with people we knew. Although most comments were benign, they did speak rather harshly about the lady who lived on the northwest corner of Euclid and Chicago during the 1940s and '50s who spent a lot of her time walking around the block yelling and swearing at everyone she saw.

During the time my family believed I didn't understand German, many of the remarks concerned my friends. The remarks centered around which friends were good people and which were not. They particularly disliked my friend Charlie because they believed he was a sneak. It turned out they were right because he tried to steal my baseball card collection. My uncle Gene caught him and really bawled him out. Charlie never again came to our house, nor did I ever again associate with him.

The family also discussed money matters and household affairs in German. I guess they believed I was too young to understand these things. I had two friends who also encountered "the code," but we figured it was probably for the best that we weren't involved in these serious discussions.

Once I understood the language well enough to speak with the friends who spoke German, it was fun to make observations about adults. Of course, we were careful to never say anything within earshot of adults who had German surnames.

When the family realized I understood "the code," they made me a part of all discussions, which were then carried on in English.

The German culture was another part of my "growing up" years. Unfortunately, I have forgotten most of the German I once knew. But at least I had the opportunity to become a "code talker."

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