The Family — Jim the Elder

Ken Jones

Staff member
Jim the Elder

Once a year in early October the Family would hold an Oktoberfest luncheon in remembrance for James Ford (aka Jim aka Elder Ford aka Elder), an original, founding member of the Family. One day someone had kiddingly called him Elder Ford since he was the elder in the group, he seemed to like the nickname and even better the simple moniker Elder (although Martha preferred the nickname Elderberry). Elder was in his ‘70s when the Family was formed and though he lived a long life he was now gone.

Although Elder was gone, he and his fascinating stories of Germany were well remembered and so, once a year, the Family would have its special German feast. The feast always included a mix of German sausages (generally bratwurst, bierwurst and weißwurst), some home made sauerkraut, big salty pretzels, and some German Radler beer (half wheat beer and half lemonade). At the end of the day each person would also have a small glass of schnapps, usually peach or plum, but sometimes peppermint. The food and drink gave honor to the many years Elder had spent in Germany after World War II, years that were very special to him, and years that providing what sometimes seemed a non-stop series of stories.

Karma, predestination, fate, whatever you want to call it, can often move in unexpected ways and it certainly had for Jim. What had started as a military assignment after the war would lead him to find the love of his life, marriage, and a life far away from his homeland, parents and friends. On the other hand, he had acquired a new home, a new family, and many new friends.

Some would think he was a spy but actually he simply worked in Army Intelligence and then the CIA; clandestine, covert actions were never part of his job description. His main job was reviewing what the enemy was up to and though he did, on occasion, see information from the actual spies, most of the information never left the desk of his local command. Only occasionally was the intelligence he received of the alarming, “needs further review,” type of information. He did have a fairly high rank but there were always people further up the chain of command that made the ultimate decisions.

He had never imagined such a life. He was a senior in college when Pearl Harbor was attacked and considered immediate enlistment. However, his family and friends convinced him to finish out the school year. Then, as soon as classes and tests were finished, he went down to the local draft board and enlisted. He would skip the graduation ceremonies even though his parents would attend and were allowed to receive his diploma.

Given his college degree and his major—European history, and his minor—German, both prompted by his family’s German ancestry, he was sent to Officer’s Training School. There, amidst the grueling physical and mental training, his strengths stood out and upon graduation he was sent to England to work in Army Intelligence. He loved the work, was a good soldier, and could have opted to return home in 1945 when World War II ended.

Instead, he extended his Army life and was sent to Germany where he was stationed in Darmstadt, not too far from Frankfurt. There he would travel to towns throughout Germany and interview hundreds of Germans including ex-Nazis and many who had helped them carry out their terrible deeds. His reports were succinct, accurate and to the point, and they would provide considerable ammunition to be used in the Nuremberg Trials.

Given his love of German history, he would spend his days off searching out and visiting the many historical sites he had read about in family documents and college textbooks. Many of the sites now lie in ruin but surprisingly some had avoiding the bombs and were still well preserved. In those he would walk and hike and try to view the area as it has been over the centuries. Sometimes it worked, sometimes if didn’t.

When possible, Jim would also take along his rod and reel since fishing was another long-time hobby. He found that fishing was both relaxing and challenging. It also gave him a topic for conversation with the locals, many who showed him new techniques and, sometimes, the local “hot spots.”

One road he frequently traveled was the Bergstraße (“Mountain Road”) that ran from Darmstadt to the university town of Heidelberg, a town largely spared from the bombing and where an Army garrison was established.

Slightly to the east of the Bergstrasse is the beautiful Odenwald Forest, the fabled hunting ground of the Burgundians (Nibelungen) and the famous backdrop for the Nibelungenlied, a heroic story dating back to 1200 that is one of Germany’s most famous legends. Jim had read the story in German in college, loved it, and hoped that one day he might see Richard Wagner’s famous four opera cycle —“The Ring of the Nibelung,” that was based upon the legend. It told of a magic ring that grants the wearer the power to rule the world.

Jim knew that the cycle had once been staged in the opera house in the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth, a town far to the east and a town that he actually had occasion to visit during his interviews. Unfortunately, it was now a shell of a town with many of the buildings totally destroyed following bombing that took place near the end of the war.

The opera house itself, though undamaged, had unfortunately been almost a shrine for Hitler, a favorite place that he and the entire Nazi leadership would visit each year during its performances of Wagner’s operas. It was now being used by the American Army for recreation and religious services. Occasionally concerts would be held in the building for the soldiers, one of which Jim attended, but it wasn’t the “Ring Cycle” and he vowed if the town was eventually rebuilt, and the operas were once again staged, he would return.

In the meantime, the nearby Odenwald Forest with its legends and small towns holding castle after castle would prove to be an attraction demanding much of Jim’s off-duty time. So too would its fish-filled rivers and lakes.

Little did Jim know that amidst the Odenwald hills he would find the love of his life. One day while headed to Michelstadt and Erbach he stopped in the old spa town of Bad König. There, in a small and attractive inn, he ordered lunch and was served by a young lady that immediately grabbed his attention. Helga was pretty, she had a great smile, and she had a twinkle in her eye that he couldn’t avoid. She didn’t seem alarmed by his American Army uniform and seemed proud to answer the questions he had about her town and its history.

Soon, Bad König became the mid-day stopping point for his travels throughout the forest. Unbeknownst to Helga, the town had actually become his main destination in the area and she was the impetus behind those visits. Within a few months, Jim became a regular visitor at the small inn and he began to stay overnight in addition to his lunchtime visits. In time, Helga would begin to show him her village and introduce him to its people. Initially many of the people mistrusted him and wondered why he was interested in their small, relatively insignificant village. He was, after all, an American soldier, one who would have been an enemy worth killing just a few years previous. However, his skills in German, his manners and likeable nature, and his obvious interest in German history (of which they were proud) won their acceptance.

In time Jim would win Helga’s heart and in 1948 they would wed in the old, baroque Protestant church in Bad König. Unknown by Helga was the fact that Jim’s superiors frowned on the marriage and tried to talk him out of it. Nevertheless, he was persistent, they had a high regard for him, and they ultimately agreed to the marriage.

The marriage meant that Helga had to leave her village and move to Darmstadt to be with Jim. As usual for an Army man that meant occasional transfers to other bases and as Jim’s wife, Helga would move with him and always be by his side.

Finally, in 1953, Jim left the Army and joined the newly established CIA. That meant additional assignments and moves but most of the years would see him stationed in Frankfurt and Munich (with a few early years spent in the crazy world of Berlin).

He especially enjoyed his time in Munich where they lived in the nearby village of Erding. It was there that he saw an amazing sight one day. While walking on a bridge over the Sempt River he looked down and was startled to see what looked like an army of huge trout. There was a column of about eight trout swimming in perfect stationary formation followed by five more identical columns each also in identical unison. He had never seen anything like it. Unfortunately, only members of the private, local angling club could fish the river, and it was a club he was never allowed to join.

Jim enjoyed his job and loved the opportunity to explore the different areas of Germany. He would visit and come to know every region except one—communist East Germany, and though he was actually involved in a couple of meetings at the border he was prevented from seeing many of the eastern sites that were on his list.

He and Helga did make a point to visit Bayreuth. The town had been rebuilt and the opera house, officially the Margravial Opera House, had been restored to all its Baroque beauty. They reserved rooms in the town’s finest hotel and watched all 16-hours of the “Ring Cycle.” It was exciting for Helga, amazing for Jim.

Helga herself became somewhat of a history expert on Germany and was sometimes able to open some avenues on inquiry that were closed to Jim. They kidded one another and said that if Jim ever gave up his job with the CIA they could both be tour guides. She also became a companion on his fishing trips but never matched his love for the sport. However, she did enjoy their visits to the Deutsches Jagd-und Fischereimuseum (German Hunting and Fishing Museum) located near the center of Munich. Located in an old Augustinian Church, it had a treasure trove of interesting fishing objects collected over more than a half century in time, some dating back hundreds of years in the past.

Most years would also see a visit by Jim and Helga to his hometown in America. There her infectious smile and good grace would quickly win the love and admiration of his parents and friends.

Nevertheless, Jim and Helga always returned to Germany. His fascination by its history was undiminished and there always seemed to be just one more village, castle or church to be visited. Of course there were also new streams and lakes to be fished. Plus, he wanted Helga to have the chance to visit her family and friends. He never lost his love for his homeland, the United States, but he also developed a love for Germany even though he never, in his own mind, totally resolved the question of how its cultured people had so quickly seemed to accept the ideas of Hitler and the Nazis.

Jim finally retired from the CIA in 1983 after 30 years and Jim and Helga retired to Bad König. Although now retired, his search for history continued and was only limited by the retirement income and health.

A few years after their move to Bad König, Helga’s mother died of cancer and then, just a year later, her father would die of a heart attack and stroke. Although hard on Helga it was not unexpected, both had seemed in ill health for some time.

Although Jim and Helga had slowed they still appeared in good health and continued to travel. 1989 would, of course be a huge year with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of East Germany. It would take time but Jim was finally able to visit sites he had always wanted to see.

However, a year later Jim himself would receive the news that his mother too had cancer and that she had “maybe” a year to live. After long discussion, it was decided that a move to America was finally needed; Jim felt it was his duty to assist his father and mother through what would be difficult times.

They sold off part of their furniture, consolidated their belongings, and shipped the rest to a new condominium in California that Jim had bought. The condo was totally different from the historical half-timbered home they had in Bad König but they found the smaller space was actually just right for the life they now led.

They were close to Jim’s parents and also close to an old fishing pier that Jim had regularly visited when young. Unbeknownst to Jim, the pier was also the site that a group of anglers were beginning to visit each week.

Jim and Helga tried to spend as much time with Jim’s parents as possible. But as his mother’s condition worsened, Jim found himself more and more tense and more and more depressed. In some ways he felt guilty for having spent most of his adult life far away from his parents. One day Helga said, “you need to get out, you need to do something that takes your mind totally off the problems of your parents. Their problems are becoming your problems.” As usual, his bride of 44 years was right.

But what should he do? Jim maintained and continued his love for reading (both in English and German), and his love of studying history, but he had allowed his daily demands to shut out his love of fishing. Given that he needed something more local that wouldn’t require too much time away from his home and his parents, the local pier seemed to be the answer.

He had to plan out his time but soon found he could visit the pier at least a couple of days a week. Once on the pier he soon found a group of anglers that was friendly, helpful, welcoming, willing to help him regain the pier fishing skills he had once had, and eager to hear his stories about Germany.

Jim considered himself very lucky! Over the next few months the group would learn more about each other, find they shared many of the same views and opinions, establish a regular Tuesday and Thursday routine, and become very close. The group would become “The Family” and eventually Jim would become the “Elder.”


Well-Known Member
Great writing as usual, Ken. I love how Helga said, ,“you need to get out, you need to do something that takes your mind totally off the problems of your parents. Their problems are becoming your problems.” I'd call Helga a keeper.
The story reveals some basic truth about the pier being an equalizer. You could be a down and out bum or from the CIA and you'll be welcome to join the gang at the rail. Don't know of any other venue where I've seen that.