When Natalie Clarke-Knight last saw her brother Mark Wamsler in the small town of Schwäbisch Gmünd, 30 miles East of Stuttgart, she was just 8-years-old, and he was an infant. Both were born from different American fathers that had been stationed at the nearby Hardt Kaserne. But with one dead and the other missing, Natalie became Mark’s caregiver. That is until two months later when their entire lives were thrown upside down.
“I remember I saw him every day for the first two months, I would feed him, play with him and change his diapers,” Natalie said. “Then one day I went home, and he was gone.”
Mark was sent to the orphanage, and soon she was sent to her grandmother’s. Her father, who never knew she existed, had long since returned to the United States.
Life with her grandmother, Natalie said, wasn’t a fairytail. “She wasn’t your sweet old grandmother,” said Natalie. “She told me ‘You’re nothing, they gave you away, because you’re a bastard.’”
When Natalie turned 18, she left for America in search of her father. But first, she would stay with her mother, who had recently married another Soldier, and was stationed with him in Alaska.
“If I went to the U.S., I thought, I would have a better chance of finding my father,” said Natalie.
A German in America
Natalie would spend just a year in Alaska with her mother, when abruptly, her mother’s husband received orders to move back to Germany. Unwilling to return to Germany without first finding her dad, she instead moved down to Georgia with a friend.
That’s when reality hit her, she may never find her father — with a name like James Clarke and almost no other information to go by, the search became fruitless. “When I opened up phone book after phone book, and saw hundreds of James Clarkes I thought, ‘well this is crap.’”
Natalie then began forging a life as an American. First she got her green card and a few years later her citizenship. She had moved from Georgia to Florida, and even enlisted into the military as a Patriot Missile Battery Operator.
“It was an obligation I needed to fulfil,” she said about joining the military. Her four-year tour took her through Texas, Korea and a deployment to Afghanistan. With further stops post-Army in the Pentagon and Houston. She had almost settled down, almost thinking that she would never find her father, — the reason she left for America — or see her brother again.
Then she took a “23 and Me” DNA test, and got a match — a first cousin. They began talking and while trying to figure out how they were related. Natalie mentioned James Frederick Clarke.
“‘Oh yea that’s uncle Fred!”, Natalie’s cousin exclaimed. Within minutes father and daughter spoke for the first time. Thirty-five years after setting foot on American soil to find her dad, Natalie had found him in a small town in Ohio. She hopped on a plane immediately.
“There was a big banner on the side of the road saying: ‘welcome to the family.’ It was such an amazing experience,” said Natalie. “We looked like twins!”
Just a few months later, Natalie’s estranged sister mentioned in passing she had her brother Mark’s full name.
Natalie typed “Mark Wamsler” into the Facebook search bar.
An American in Germany
While Natalie lived with her grandmother, a young couple also in Schwäbisch Gmünd, adopted a two-year -old Mark.
Unfortunately his foster father died shortly after the adoption, but his foster mother, Mark said, was loving and kind. It was the Schwaben townfolk who made his childhood tough.
“When you grow up in a little Swabian town, you feel it, that you don’t belong — that you’re different,” said Mark. “I would get into a lot of fights, and they would say: ‘It’s clear, he’s a bastard, he’s from the orphanage, of course he acts like this.’”
Mark though found solace in American culture and the American Soldiers at the nearby post.
“I loved watching the A-Team, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica,” he said. “I would also hang out with the Americans everyday, sometimes sneaking beer into my backpack and trading it for empty machine gun shells and American food.”
One time Mark recalls, he was thrown out of a swimming pool for standing up for a Black Soldier who was being verbally abused with racial slurs. “My mom was angry,” he laughed, “But I knew I did the right thing.”
Mark did make contact with his biological mom and his father’s family in the U.S. Neither experience went well, and much like Natalie at one point, was resigned to never finding anyone he could love in his lost family.
Instead he focused on life in Germany, becoming a teacher for troubled youths. He even accomplished his dream of becoming a published author. Writing a young adult novel about a vampire with one tooth that has to succeed in a world that doesn’t accept him.
Mark said while writing his other book, Vanara, a fantasy novel, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he received a popup on his computer.
“Hi Mark, this is your sister,” Natalie wrote to Mark in German over Facebook messenger.
Mark couldn’t believe it.
“It was surreal,” he said. “I was in the middle of writing about women fighting a dragon in my book, and then this woman who fought dragons in real life messaged me telling me, she was my long lost sister.”
Over the next year as COVID prevented travel, Natalie said they simply talked.
“I wanted him to trust me,” she said. Mark said they chatted like old friends.
Then in July, as travel restrictions were lifted, Natalie booked a flight to Schwäbisch Gmünd.
They met in the town’s train station. There they embraced each other for the first time in 45 years.
“You’ve grown up since the last time I saw you,” Natalie laughed through her tears.