The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

August 22, 2013

German visitor has fond memories of Space Academy, Mexican food

By Karen Middleton

— Now and then it’s informative to learn how foreigners view our country. It’s especially refreshing to see our society through the eyes of a 14-year-old.

John and Jane Davis of Athens recently said goodbye to Tamino Schirbel, the teen son of German friends, who spent several weeks of the summer with them.

The Davises have three grown sons so it’s been a while since they had to keep up with an energetic youngster. A recent fishing trip with Tamino brought home that reality.

“Some friends lent us their paddle boat,” said John. “I told Tamino it was powered by GPS — Geezer Powered Steering.”

During Tamino’s last few days in Athens, the family would have fish for supper prepared by Jane from the bass Tamino caught.

Who cleaned the fish? Tamino, of course.

“In Germany, we have to take a course to get a fishing license,” he said.

Part of that course, was cleaning the fish after you catch them.

But the highlight of Tamino’s summer sojourn was a week at U.S. Space Academy in Huntsville.

“It was very interesting to learn, and it was the real thing — real astronaut training, so just not play,” he said. “We went on the Orion Mission. I was a mission specialist. We had a payload, commander and capsule. We had mission control to help if we had a problem. Then we would have to call Houston and say we have a problem so something doesn’t go wrong.”

Tamino said the occupants of the capsule had to perform a simulated docking.

“There are thousands of buttons and switches we had to press at the right moment and a checklist of who does what.”

Once they had to don space suits for a walk to repair a window on the Space Station.

“Yes, that’s cool,” he said. “There were microphones in our helmets. It sounds just like the movies. After the mission, we had to go back to Orion capsule and fly back to Earth.”

Tamino said the risk was losing the capsule in a water landing.

Other activities included training in “Area 51,” aviation training and team games.

“There were very cool team games,” he said. “We made rockets with real explosions to shoot them up. A parachute would open. Sometimes they would flame out in the second explosion.”

Another highlight was a trip to Mooresville and a fishing trip with the mayor. Tamino’s mother, Bettina, lived in Mooresville 20 years ago when she came to visit America.

“Bettina — Tina — had seen the film “Dances with Wolves” in Germany and wanted to come to America so she could be around horses,” said John. “She stayed with a family in Mooresville.”

The Davises became acquainted with Tamino’s mother when she was enrolled in an English-as-a-second language course in Decatur that Jane Davis taught. He said they arranged for Bettina to realize her dream of getting close to horses when she was able to live briefly on a ranch at the actual filming site of “Dances with Wolves” in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The Davises formed a close friendship with Bettina and eventually with her husband Feili in Leipzig, which is in the former East Germany. The Davises were visiting The Schirbels on Sept. 11, 2001, when they learned of the terrorist attacks on America.

“They treated us like we were their own family,” said Davis. “Wherever we went in Germany, when people learned we were from the U.S. they couldn’t do enough for us.”

When the Schirbels sent 14-year-old Tamino to spend part of the summer with John and Jane, it was with the instruction that they were to speak only English to her son. The Davises lived in Germany when he was employed in government counterintelligence. Davis, a linguist, is fluent in German as well as several other languages.

Tamino also had some work experience while here. He worked briefly at Asbury Thrift Shop in Madison.

“I wanted him to see how Americans help each other,” said Davis.

Tamino stripped working parts from old donated computers to install in other computers to recondition them for resale.

The German youngster also developed a taste for barbecue, baked beans, brisket on the grill, and Mexican food, of which he couldn’t get his fill.

But the greatest memory of his stay?

“My greatest memories are of Space Academy, all the people I met and the friendships I made,” he said. “I have their addresses, emails, and Facebook. In the teamwork I made much more new friends from all over the world.”