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Into The Light: Erich Klinghammer


Long-time readers know that I have done volunteer work at a place called Wolf Park.  Some of you have even come down and visited there, or even helped the park out a bit. 

The park truly began in 1972 when founded by Erich Klinghammer, who taught at Purdue.  The very proper mode of address would be Professor Doctor Klinghammer I believe, but that was never Erich's style.  Having a Ph.D., or a Ph.D. in the "right" field, was never his criteria for evaluation or judgement, just as not having straight A's was a bar to working with him academically (or otherwise).  He was far more interested in the knowledge you had, and the passion to learn and do that drove you, than anything. 

Erich would be the first to tell you that he was "complicated" and even that he was selfish.  The first is actually a bit of understatement to my mind, and I am sure the second was true.  To understand both, however, takes a bit of background.

Born in 1930 in Germany, Erich came of age during the worst of World War II.  His experiences with the Nazi's, with war and the capriciousness of fate in war time, shaped him in many ways.  One way in which we disagreed was in what comes after, as he felt that when you die that's it.  Quite a few who knew him disagreed with him on that, and I found out at his memorial last night that someone had gotten the chance to tell him not long before he passed that they hoped he was very surprised on the other side...  Another was a profound distrust of anything that smacked of Fascism.  His own impressment into part of the Hitler Youth (thankfully not the do-or-die military arm) shaped that, and helped shape a bit of what I can only call pacifism (more in a moment). 

After the war, he came to America because he felt that it was a place that someone like him, with little money but dreams and a desire to work at those dreams could succeed.  He saw America for what it was, a land of opportunity and a nation where wilderness still existed in large areas.  He never, as far as I knew, believed that America could not make mistakes, but saw it as a country that tried to fix its mistakes and gave its Citizens the chance to make that happen if and as needed. 

He hated war as only someone who has seen its worst can hate it.  Erich knew death and destruction first hand, and would cheerfully have seen war no more.  Yet, he was also an avid student of military (and technological) history, and knew that the odds of war no more were slim.  I suspect that our versions of rational pacifism were similar in some respects, and I will regret no longer having the chance to explore that issue with him.  I would also note that he was a passionate ambassador for Germany, and took pains to point out that not all from his era were monsters.  He loved his homeland, but one of his dying declarations was that he chose to be an American. 

Yet, he served in the Army and felt that such service was a good thing.  He respected that service, those who served, most who led, and felt an obligation to do for those who had served -- particularly in war.  He dispensed large amounts of advice to those he knew were going in harm's way, myself included.  In my case much of that didn't matter since I was a non-combatant, though that didn't slow him down a bit.  There were some very good nuggets of information in there, however, and were based on his own experiences and events that had happened since.  My single largest disagreement with him on modern military history came from the fact that his prime source was the mainstream media; and, we argued cheerfully and strongly about sourcing. 

Over the few years I had to know him, Erich talked to me several times about doing things for the Park.  Some of these would have included becoming staff, and taking on some interesting responsibilities.  A couple of those suggestions were outside my comfort zone, and even outside my areas of formal training.  That didn't phase Erich a bit, as he was confident I could do the job.  That's one of the best things about Erich in my book, is that he often believed in someone's ability to do a job or make a difference when they didn't, and his belief was so strong that you found yourself coming to believe it to.  I wasn't the only one he did this to, and I know I wasn't the only one who heard some variant of 'I'm not doing this for you, I'm doing it for me.  I'm being selfish because if you do this I won't have to do it/will have time to do what I want to do instead.' 

His passion in life was Ethology, which is the study of animal behavior (and understanding/translation of same).  It is also a branch of knowledge dealing with human character and its formation/evolution.  The two are, in my opinion and I strongly suspect in Erich's, unrelated.  It was a study that when he discovered it, he pursued with focus and determination.  He was a friend and protege of Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz, who visited Erich and Wolf Park several times. 

The stature he holds in the field is not related to the number of papers produced, or the fact that he did literally ground-breaking research.  It truly lies in the number of papers and practical operations that resulted from him and his passion.  Erich inspired many, and what's more he dared you to go do.  Almost all who crossed his orbit changed trajectories to some degree, so that they went and did -- not just studied. 

One of the more interesting aspects of ethology for me is that canid behavior very much related to human behavior.  In watching wolves, I came to better understand aspects of teenage behavior (and to pity the parents of some teenagers I knew).  The language of wolves is more than 90 percent (IMO) body language, and I found out first hand that predatory body language in wolves does indeed translate well to humans, a fact I used to my advantage and safety.  It is an area of study that bears some scrutiny, and something I've recommended for troops doing COIN or operating in such an environment.  I suspect that Erich was unsurprised by what I learned, and perhaps even a bit amused at my learning it.

On sort of a side note, I "joked" in talks about my not being sure what it said about the day job that after dealing with university faculty and staff that I found it relaxing to be in with a pack of wolves (and they are NOT domesticated).  Fact was, I trusted the wolves (to be wolves) and can't say the same for most I worked with.  Erich's response was along the lines of 'Ja, true' and simple acceptance of a fact.  Again, think he was amused by my learning/admitting to that "discovery."  

Erich remarked that he started Wolf Park simply because he wanted to have a home with a couple of wolves in the backyard.  He also made a comment or two about having hours open to the public because of people showing up at all times and interrupting (ruining) his research, so he selfishly did the initial open hours to protect said research.  He would occasionally rant about all the selfish things he'd done, and look at what happened.  How had he screwed up and seen his selfish dreams become such a thing? 

Even as a dialysis patient, Erich observed and became involved.  I was not surprised in the least last night at his memorial to discover that he had become an advocate for some of the other patients.  His own sense of justice was such that he would stand up for anyone he felt was not being treated fairly and non-judgementally.  Or, that he felt needed an advocate because they were for whatever reason not standing up for themselves as strongly as they could.

My last visit with him came a few weeks ago.  I knew he was back in the hospital, and that things had been rocky.  I admit I approached the door to his room with some trepidation, but he woke up, saw me, and ordered me in.  He approved of a change I'd made in my life, and we talked of many things -- from the declining health of my owner Jenny to some ideas he had in regards veterans.  When facing death, and dealing with serious health issues and treatments, it is easy to turn in and talk of yourself.  Erich didn't do that.  He was frank about his problems, but wanted to focus instead on doing something for others.  In this case, younger veterans and particularly those with PTSD.  I promised to work on that for him, and we talked until he got tired.  I don't know how much he might have turned inwards in those final days, but I've heard of his continuing to focus outwards:  on doing, on doing things that would help others, on projects that needed to be done. 

Thursday a week ago, his stern declaration to me in regards her and her health was something I had in mind as my Jenny left this world.  Thursday of this week, Erich left this world.  The void left is something more than just his 6'5" frame and booming voice.  It is more than an insatiable curiosity and desire to learn, or even a passion for bringing together ideas and people from very diverse fields to do something because it would be fun (and good).  It's the drive embodied by 'You know what's right, now go do it.'

We disagreed strongly and passionately on many things, but on that latter we agreed.  Do what you know is right, do what you love, and just go do it.  In his "selfishness" he did more good than any hundred people who set out to do good things with a detailed plan.  He had a plan, but part of it was encouraging others to make and act on their own plans. 

Godspeed Erich.  Like others, I hope the surprise was on you when you reached the other side and that you found yourself swarmed by all your lupine/canine friends -- people can wait.  Thanks for an amazing place, and for raising a lot of interesting possibilities.  Thank you for your service, and your continuing dedication to those who serve. 


NOTE:  I don't know who took the picture of him, but if you click and enlarge, note the gleam in his eye.  To me, this captures him almost perfectly.