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Man found love on the battlefield, her name scribbled on a postcard

ATWATER -- What started as a postcard-spawned romance during World War II has blossomed into a classic long-term marital union.

Hans and Christel Buchmann celebrated 60 years together last month and cherish the memories generated through 84 years of living.

Christel Krueger, a Red Cross volunteer living in Berlin, sent postcards to German soldiers during the war. One, with a cartoonish front cover showing a dog on stilts nursing a bandaged foot, fell into the hands of soldier-radio operator Hans Buchmann who wrote back to her, and the rest, as they say, is their story.

More than two years as a prisoner-of-war interrupted the Buchmanns' correspondence. Their first personal contact was a date in a Berlin amusement park in August 1947. They were engaged that Christmas.

Their original July wedding plans were moved forward to April 1948 in furtive hopes that would help them get an apartment in blockaded Berlin. Tired of the desperate conditions in Germany and needing to find work, the couple immigrated to the United States nearly two years later to start a new life here.

"It wasn't easy starting over but we're glad we made the decision to come here," Christel Buchmann said. "When we came over we didn't have anything. We made it when we didn't think it was possible. We are not rich now, but we are happy and have everything we want."

Buchmann, who points out his wife is 38 days older than he is, said one of the secrets to their wedded bliss is they stick together and stand up for each other. The couple has three grown children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The Buchmanns were honored at a 60th anniversary party late last month at a Merced restaurant.

Their oldest daughter, Margaret Buchmann-Garcia, said her parents have been deeply supportive of her and her two younger brothers, Gerald and John.

"You can tell their love has kept them together all these years," Buchmann-Garcia said. "They are very family-oriented people; they've been a great example. They've always been there for me."

Buchmann, who retired to the Sonora-Twain Harte area about 20 years ago after an engineering career spent mostly in the Silicon Valley area and Texas, enjoys reading "anything of interest," working crossword puzzles and still participates in Sons of Herman lodge activities in Modesto. A baritone who loves singing and took part in the Oakland Men's Chorus for years, Buchmann is supposed to sing for the wedding of his nephew's daughter later this year.

"We are blessed to be able to stay alive so long," Buchmann said. "It was heaven. When we came to the U.S. we had the freedom where we could do what we wanted to do."

In his native Berlin, Buchmann learned the trade of becoming what is called a "fine" mechanic, making tools and dies along with optical instruments. Immigrating to the U.S., he started as a machinist's helper at 75 cents an hour, then became a machinist in Oakland, earning $1.56 an hour as a lathe operator. By that November, he was earning $1.77 an hour.

Of course, at that time a loaf of bread and a quart of milk cost 19 cents each, along with a pack of cigarettes. A pound of coffee was 59 cents, considerably cheaper than the sky-high prices they experienced during the days of the Berlin Blockade.

When he first arrived in the U.S., Buchmann only knew a few American words: OK, yes and no. He spent four nights each week in night school learning English, becoming proficient in about four months' time. His boss in the machine shop, who had come to America from Germany in the 1920s, insisted Buchmann communicate with him in English. The Buchmanns became naturalized citizens five years after arriving in the United States.

Christel Buchmann went to Laney Trade School and also learned English quickly. The newspaper was too difficult to read; she started out reading "True Romance" magazines.

She worked for three years at the Golden Gate Knitting Mills in Oakland as a sewing machine operator, earning 65 cents an hour while making baby clothes. Her outside employment ended in 1953 -- their oldest daughter, Margaret, was born in April 1954 and she became a stay-at-home mom.

The couple bought their first house in San Lorenzo that April for $12,500, staying there for five years until they moved to Santa Clara and later Campbell. When the Verbatim company in Sunnyvale laid off 3,000 people in 1980, the Buchmanns moved to a computer electronics job in Carrollton, Texas, where they lived for six years.

Christel, who used to do crocheting and embroidery, laughingly recalls belonging to a "stitch and bitch" women's sewing group while living in Texas.

"My hands don't work now. Things don't work so good anymore, but complaining doesn't help," she said.

Since Buchmann retired, the couple has taken about a dozen ocean cruises, to Hawaii, Alaska, the Panama Canal, Mexico and the Caribbean. For their 50th anniversary, their children gave them three days' lodging in the Queen Mary, now permanently berthed in Long Beach. The tourist cabins they had stayed in during their first voyage to New York were long gone, replaced by first-place accommodations.

Secrets to their long marriage? Hans Buchmann said arguments are quickly forgotten.

"I never say it's mine -- it's ours," he said. "We respect each other and made a commitment to stay together and raise a family."

His wife said the couple doesn't fight, and they never get mad at each other:

"We try our best."

Christel's secret to a long life is no drinking or smoking. Her husband said he gave up smoking "cold turkey" in 1976 and does social drinking only occasionally.

The couple continues to share their love of German cooking. One of her favorite dishes is rouladen, made of thin-cut beef, mustard, bacon, onions and pickles. Other favorites are bratwurst and red cabbage, along with traditional German pastries served at Christmastime.

Buchmann-Garcia said her parents have always reached out to others. They instilled in her the importance of becoming bicultural and learning about her German heritage.

The Greek poet Sophocles wrote that "no man loves life like him that's growing old." The Buchmanns are testament to both life and love.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at

(209) 385-2485 or

dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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