Reminiscences of a Full Life:
James A. Felchlin Oral History

From the forward

When this project was first suggested to me, I was struck by it as a wonderful opportunity to explore and document the life of someone from the age now commonly referred to as “The Greatest Generation.” James Alois Felchlin, born in 1919, is a member of this group, and whether or not you accept the implications of the term The Greatest Generation, his life retrospective stands on its own as a great story. This oral history is the product of a series of conversations I had with Jim in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Being was born in 1952, my formative world view was significantly shaped by members of this generation: my parents, relatives, their friends, teachers and mentors, and a host of others from within and outside the small northern California community where I grew up. I found that my conversations with Jim often resonated distinctly with what I had come to know about the period in which this generation came of age. The genuine and personal stories in this collection capture the hopes, dreams, triumphs, and disappointments shared by so many of his peers who grew up during the Great Depression, survived World War II, and later pursued stability and contentment in the post-war 1950s by starting families and striving for success in professional life.

With graciousness, wit, wisdom, and an uncanny ability for summoning detail, Jim treats his readers to a broad spectrum of compelling life remembrances from his time.


 

E X C E R P T

Inside Felchlin Reminicences

James Felchlin: Traveling to Germany in 1936 And then, of course, I went to Germany and lived with [grandmother] for almost a year.

JM: Can you tell us something about that? Can you recollect that whole scenario for us?

JF: Well, again, I’m fuzzy on these dates. You see, I graduated from University High School in December of 1935. So I was really 15, became 16, and my birthday is December the 29th. So all of a sudden I was out of high school, barely 16. And my father felt that because I was small, that he should maybe not send me off to college yet. And I think I worked for a little while. But anyway, along about that time, this was in 1936, my grandmother had gone to Germany, and she had been born in Ulm, which is probably a 100 miles west of Munich. And her family lived in Bavaria, in that area. She had gone to Germany, I found, to negotiate with her family about the sale of the family business, which I believe was either a brewery or some sort of a beverage marketing or making company. And she was having trouble and wanted my father to come and help her. My father then was having enough problems with his own business. He just couldn’t take the time off, and for some reason they decided they’d send me along, I guess just as sort of comfort to her. So in 1936, the end of 1936, I had been working or something, I was sent to Germany. My grandmother had sent a ticket for me, and I boarded a Hamburg–American Line ship, which was kind of a freighter with, oh, maybe 20 or 30 passengers, one class, and left from Oakland. Went down the West Coast through Latin America, through the Panama Canal, to Cartegna, and I forget, I think it took six weeks. Stopped everywhere to get cargo or leave cargo.

JM: Do you remember anything about the Panama Canal? Was that an exciting pass then?

JF: Yeah, I do. I can remember going through the Canal, and the Gatun Lake, and it was interesting. And, of course, it was an interesting passenger group. I was the youngest by far. I pretended I was older. And I learned to drink beer, German beer, which is still delicious. And we’d stop everywhere and go ashore, and the purser would give me money, because I didn’t have any money. And as a matter of fact, when I finally arrived in Hamburg, my grandmother had to bail me out because I owed a lot of money. But I did meet a nurse on the ship and became friendly with her. She was probably six, eight years older than I. And then when I arrived in Germany, my grandmother took me on the train down to Munich where she had obtained a Pensione. And we stayed there for the better part of a year. From Munich, I was able to travel. She purchased for me a, what we now call a Europass. But backing up a minute, the reason we stayed was that when the business was sold, she got some money. I believe the amount was something upwards of $60,000, and in Marks, of course. And she couldn’t take the money out of the country. The Nazis were then in power, and they had put down a law or whatever. They were preventing people from taking money out of Germany. And so she wasn’t permitted to do that. And when we finally left in, I guess it was late November of 1937, because we arrived in Los Angeles on December 31st of ’37, it took us at least four weeks, because again we were going up to Stockton. When you say “we,” did your grandmother transport back to the States with you? Yeah. That was a difficult part of the trip. We had cabins adjoining and portholes that looked out on the deck. It was, you know, it wasn’t a great, it wasn’t a luxury liner. As a matter of fact, the swimming pool was something they built up on the forward deck like you see now with a canvas type of thing, and you could climb up a ladder to get in it. And as a matter of fact, there were two German girls on the ship who were like late teens or early ’20s. I don’t know. And I had, after almost a year, I was able to converse in German quite well, and we became friends. When we were down in the Caribbean, everybody used to swim at night, because it was hot and it was fun. And so after swimming, I was with one of these girls. I was going to show her something in my cabin, but I was afraid to go around into the passageway, that my grandmother would hear me. So I was letting her climb into the porthole, and my grandmother looked out the other side and saw me with this, you know, in a bathing suit, getting this girl going in. And my grandmother was so upset that she, being very Catholic and did the beads and all, stayed in her cabin most of the time for the rest of the trip. That had benefits, I might say. <laughter>