My family doesn’t have a strong military tradition. Although a number of the men, particularly in my father’s generation, have worn uniforms, there aren’t any career soldiers, and reference to “the service” has always meant religious service.
The Ruffs are typically pastors; the Lehenbauers, my mother’s people, incline more to missionary work. If you sense a fundamental difference in temperament here, you’re right. Lehenbauers tend to have—how shall I put this?—a healthy love of debate, and they are also more prone to wanderlust. Both sides of the family immigrated from Germany to the American Midwest in the 19th century, but while the Ruffs stayed put once they got here, Grandpa Lehenbauer got restless and decided to continue on to South America—first Brazil, then Argentina. Then in the 1950s my mother backtracked to the U.S., drawn in part, one suspects, by the nomadic promise of the new Interstate Highway System.
The reason I mention all this: as I say, we’re not a military family, so until recently I assumed that none of my relatives were over in Iraq. But if you’d told me that one of my kin had been spotted across the street from Abu Ghraib prison, or goofing around in the throne room of one of Saddam’s palaces, and asked me to guess whether it was a Ruff or a Lehenbauer… well, it’s not even a question, really.
A few months ago I was doing research on the town of Oettingen, where earlier, less itinerant generations of Lehenbauers worked as linen weavers. A Google search turned up the following photo:
This was the home of my great-great-grandfather, Johann Matthias Lehenbauer (the siding is a more recent addition, and of course in the 1700s only the wealthiest Germans could afford electricity).
The photo was posted in the blog of one Ernest Lehenbauer, a civilian engineer under contract to the Department of Defense to help bolt supplemental armor onto Humvees. He’d visited Oettingen while on leave from “Camp Warrior” in Kirkuk.
“Well that’s interesting,” I thought. “I have a long-lost cousin named Ernest, whose dad was an engineer for Ford, and not only is he a Lehenbauer, he’s one of the Mormon Lehenbauers, which means he’s way crazy enough to volunteer for work in a combat zone…” Sure enough, this was indeed my cousin Ernie, whom I last saw back when we were teenagers (as I recall, we spent much of the visit trying to convince Ernie’s younger brother Eric that the house was being buzzed by UFOs).
Ernie’s trip to Oettingen took place in 2005, and by the time I stumbled across his blog, his tour in Iraq was already over—he’d finished up his contract and headed home in March of 2006. His final blog entry was entitled “Moving on, I guess,” which I understood to be Lehenbauer code for “I’ll stay Stateside just long enough for my mother’s blood pressure to return to normal, then see if anyone in Afghanistan needs a mechanic.”
Big surprise, a couple days ago I discovered a new Ernest Lehenbauer blog called “Back to Iraq.” Seems that he reupped to help out with the surge, and now they’ve got him unclogging the Internet tubes at one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces. (Though it’s been many years since our UFO-spotting days, looks like Ernie and I still have the same sense of humor. I would totally do the “Saddam’s throne photo op with bad pun” thing, if you could get me within a thousand miles of the place. But I’m only half Lehenbauer, and somebody needs to stay here on the West Coast and watch for North Korean submarines.)
I’ve added Ernie’s blog to my journal links so I can keep track of his doings, and because, in case it’s not obvious, I’m proud of him. I’m worried for him, too, but another factoid about Lehenbauers is that they’re historically quite difficult to kill. Grandma Helena, for example—the original Mormon Lehenbauer—was hit by a truck at age 77 and survived to argue theology for another nine years. I’m optimistic that the same mojo will work against exploding trucks… and hopeful that this theory will not be put to the test.
Stay safe, Ernest.