Home > Back

Why We Moved to Frankfurt
Late Spring, 1989

I had been vaguely aware for many years that MITRE had a small site in Frankfurt. As I later learned, they supported Germany's equivalent to our Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Bundesanstalt für Flugsicherung (BFS) – the Federal Agency for Air Traffic Control. It can be a tongue-twister to pronounce, particularly in the Berlitz-taught Hochdeutsch, or Standard German, where the "ich" is pronounced as a guttural. It's a little easier in the local Hessisch dialect, where it's pronounced "ish." (One time when we were talking, at least as well as we were able, with a couple whose acquaintance we had made at the chicken place the wife demanded, in German, "Do you think you're from Berlin?" An exasperated bare-LEAN!)

Occasionally, a Frankfurt position notice would be sent around, but I had no interest in moving there. Now if it had been Paris or London or.... However, a friend was extremely interested and applied several times before finally being accepted in mid-1988. Coincidentally, around the same time another friend that we'd known from when I was working on MITRE military projects some twenty years earlier was made site manager of MITRE's Heidelberg site. Little did I know that we'd soon be meeting them again on foreign soil.

Although we had traveled to various parts of Europe many times, including Munich and Heidelberg in Germany, Frankfurt isn't on the tourist route. The only time we'd previously been there was at the end of our first, three-week, trip to Europe in 1968. We arrived the afternoon before the next day's flight and didn't have time for sightseeing in any case. The hotel we selected from Frommer was not far from the train station, as well as, we soon learned, another area. Returning from dinner that evening, an occasional lovely loitering lady eyed me speculatively and Betty Lou tightened her grip on my arm – we were passing through the red-light district!

For several years I had been working on projects for the FAA's Traffic Flow Management (TFM) System. Including the infamous ground delay program, its mission is to "balance air traffic demand with system capacity to ensure the maximum efficient utilization of the National Airspace System."

One day I was notified by my Associate Department Head that MITRE had a project that required an electrical engineer, and I was one of only a few who had managed to continue performing technical work without being tempted into managerial responsibilities. That was particularly ironic, because in the early years non-EEs felt they were such a minority in our midst

It was a Military Microwave Landing System (MMLS) project that was managed from MITRE's Bedford headquarters, and required regular trips to a contractor in Buffalo. I asked if I had a choice, and they said I did, so I looked into it further. The person in McLean who would be my local connection with the project was a Department Head about whom I had no prior knowledge, so I talked to some people who had worked for him.

One in particular provided the valuable information that although he was a nice enough guy, he was involved in his own projects (for which he later received a prestigious award) and so probably wouldn't be of much help with guidance or mediating potential problems with Bedford. Of course, having grown up in upstate New York, I was acquainted with lake-effect snow, which particularly impacted Buffalo. Also, it was hard for me to believe that Bedford – whose work was primarily with the military, whereas it was a minor part of McLean's portfolio – didn't have a single qualified person. Nothing about the project's conduct looked attractive.

Although our TFM support had dwindled to only a few, I anticipated that it would increase again, as indeed later occurred. In fact, when I returned and rejoined the group, it had grown to more than twenty. So I said I'd prefer to stay with TFM, that it been through recent downs, but I'd hate to leave just when I thought it was about to come back.

I soon learned that they had misread top management, that I really didn't have a choice! If they'd told me that in the beginning, I'd probably just have gone along with it, but now I was angry (not my initial choice of words), so when the Frankfurt opening was announced1 (actually there were three) I applied and was accepted. The timing was propitious – Betty Lou could finish out the school year and take a leave of absence, although we enjoyed the experience so much that we wished that they allowed more than two years. When she applied for a third, they said if she wanted to stay she could quit – not a reasonable suggestion after 25 years.

I did work on the project for about a month, and that part was something I'd really have liked to have been able to do when I began at MITRE. I actually did some EE-ing, developing computer simulations of antenna patterns of the MMLS phased arrays to determine location errors of aircraft off the centerline. But that part was now complete.

Then we went to Germany. I never did find out what was the outcome of the MMLS project.

The following is somewhat of a summary for those who haven't yet finished reading the sixty or so accounts of our experiences in Frankfurt. I've included occasional links to stories with more detail.

It didn't take long to realize that, although Frankfurt was not a tourist magnet, it had developed into a very pleasant place to live. Headquarters of the stock exchange and home to many banks – giving it the nickname "Bankfurt" – its prosperity provided enough resources that the south bank of the Main River was called the Museumsufer. (It took me a while to realize that it didn't refer to a surfer – Ufer means shore.)

The Opera House had been rebuilt after having been destroyed by bombs in the Second World War,2 and there were many other cultural offerings as well as other activities: regular Fests on the Alte Oper Square, a marathon snaking though the streets in the fall, a fashion show on a long runway erected down the Fressgass (a pedestrian street that included many restaurants, popular for outdoor dining during the warmer months – although Fressen and Essen both mean "to eat," Essen is what people do, while Fressen is how animals nosh), browsing the Saturday flea market on the Museumsufer. Then there are the regular "Messes," trade fairs, often huge: automotive, book, stamp, and many more. Here are more details about some of these attractions

Living in the close-in West End, we appreciated being able to easily reach most areas of interest by foot, bicycle – along the comprehensive bicycle path network – or via a nearby U-Bahn (subway), or S-Bahn (inter-urban rail) station. The 1983 323i BMW we purchased from a departing MITRE consultant sat unused for long periods on the street, usually only requiring a top-up every several weeks – which we do when it reaches the half-full mark.

We also enjoyed the many restaurants with a variety of ethnic, even German, cuisines, and the jazz clubs. Then there were the botanical gardens, the zoo, and the parks, including the expansive one decorated with topless sunbathers along the path during the summer, although the nude area was further away.

Of course, our central location provided convenient access to travel, and dine, in other interesting parts of Europe, some of which I've described on my website.

As for the red-light district, it was still there. Although, according to Rick Steves, prostitution only became legalized in 2002, it was long tolerated in what was in fact called a "tolerance area." As I noted in a story about an advertising newspaper's "person in the street" interviews, one question was about what should be done about the red-light district now that it was becoming a prime area for redevelopment, and most of the responses didn't involve doing away with it, but where to move it.

1 The circumstances that led to the position posting were eerie as well as sad.

The eerie part is that when I was in military work in the late 60's, one project was to determine a schedule to upgrade the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. I found out that NASA had developed a PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) computer program that would provide that type of information, and which a MITRE-ite working at the NASA site provided to me. He was the one who had previously held the Frankfurt position.

The sad part is that he had contracted a type of cancer that was quickly fatal, which is why the position was now available. Fortunately, someone at the site arranged to have him transported to a U.S. hospital before he died, avoiding the complex international red tape involved in repatriating mortal remains.

2 Most of Frankfurt was leveled during the war. This picture shows a downtown area that includes the Römer, named for Roman ruins that had been discovered there. It was reconstructed in the old style, but other new construction is modern.

A colleague told me of a guy he knew who was taking a taxi in from the Frankfurt airport when the driver asked him if he'd been there before. He enthusiastically replied, "Yes, I was here before – we were all flying over and throwing down bombs!" and suddenly realized to whom he was talking.

The building including our apartment was spared, as evidenced by the thirteen-foot ceilings. Walking down the street, we were at first not aware of which ones hadn't been so lucky, until we noticed that although all the roofs were the same height, some, including ours, had three stories, but others had four

© Copyright 2015 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved

    Home > Back