Tuesday, July 25, 2017

New Kids In Town - February, 1962

Saturday morning dawned cold and overcast, just like most early February mornings in the Eifel Mountains. Gino Davis had joined the group and was happily leading the way down the hill and past the Air Police guardhouse as we walked along the two lane access road toward the German Bus Stop out on highway B-51. Leonard, who organized the trip along with Mike Ammon, slipped to the rear of the group and let Gino lead the way. Gino was wearing white socks with black pants and a day-glow green sweater. He proudly announced to the world the Americans were coming.

The bus stop was almost half a mile walk from the gate at Bitburg Air Base and by the time we got there I was almost cold enough to abandon the trip. No, not really, I was excited about what lay ahead. Soon one of the big, lumbering yellow Mercedes diesel buses from the Deutsche Bundespost pulled off the busy highway into our bus stop. After someone, I don't know who, communicated to the driver we wanted to go to the Trier train station, we all dug out the right combination of Deutschmarks, and deposited them in the coin box.

"Almost like home" I thought as I fingered the Marks, about the same size and weight as a quarter. Then I looked up at the passengers, most of the men wearing fedora hats, and many of the older women with "babushka" type scarves, all staring at our group boarding the bus and thought, "Oh, no, no it isn't!"

It was apparent we were as much a novelty to curious passengers as they were to us. They saw Americans all the time, some of them even worked on base or in the housing area, but usually only one or two "Amis" would get on the bus at once, and not all carrying duffel bags. We were being whispered about as we lurched toward the rear of the bus, looking for empty seats. There were eight of us, including Hank, one of my friends from the guidance shop, and some others I didn't really know. We ended up scattered around the bus, somehow concerned we would get separated and not make the journey to Luxembourg, wherever that was.

The bus stopped at several more villages on the sixteen-mile trip through the wooded countryside, picking up occasional riders. The ride down the hill overlooking the Mosel Valley and the city of Trier was one I'll always remember. The beauty of the German countryside never fails to impress me. We crossed over the Mosel River and soon swung into the open-air bus station, filled with buses and people. When the bus came to a halt in the busy bus terminal in Trier, everyone else got off, so we did, too.

Someone had a city map of Trier, I think it was Leonard's, and we made a command decision to walk through the Markt Platz and head toward Germany's oldest building, the Roman "Black Gate," the Porta Nigra. We stood at the Porta Nigra and several of us took photos like any tourist. I didn't have a camera, and most of the others couldn't afford color film. A lot of GI photos of Europe back then were shot in black and white. 

Porta Nigra, Trier, Germany

We referred to the priceless map and struck off in what we thought was the direction of the train station. At first it was fun, goofing along and making mental notes about all of our observations of German civilization. It was apparent we weren't going to find any train station when we were almost out of town. Leonard stopped a passerby, who didn't speak English, but by pointing at the map and making simple hand gestures we gathered we had gone the wrong way from the Porta Nigra. We trudged the long walk back to the massive stonework and turned left, walking down a beautiful, tree lined boulevard. By the time we got to another bus station located just this side of the train station, we were no longer kidding around about being lost. One of the buses coming out of the train station had Bitburg lit up as a destination. It may have been the same bus we had ridden into town.

We stood in the huge, tile-floor train station entrance and tried to figure out where to get train information and buy tickets. Leonard and Mike were the ones who knew what they wanted, so while we waited alongside the ticket window, the young clerk, who spoke broken English, collected money from an assortment of hands and passed back eight, small train tickets. We looked at the tickets as if they were a joke. The train tickets were about the size of an American movie ticket, but made out of thick cardboard, like being cut out of a cardboard box. It was green with a red strip through it. I thought it would make a great souvenir someday.

"I'm famished!", exclaimed Gino, "Let's get something to eat before we go out to the platform. We have twenty minutes before the train comes."

We followed Gino into the train station's tile-walled restaurant and ended up all at the same table, pulling empty chairs from nearby tables. We got some strange looks, apparently we were out of order. Everything on the menu looked expensive. My first lesson in not eating at train stations.

Gino said to the standoffish waiter, "I'll have the Tagesuppe" 

The rest of us ordered open face sandwiches, and of course, draught beer. When we asked Gino what "Tagesuppe" was, he informed us he had a bowl of it before and thought it was delicious. When the waiter brought Gino a soup bowl with what appeared to be broth with a raw egg floating in it, we thought his eyes were stuck open.

"Entshuldigung…," Gino said to the waiter, "What is this?"

The waiter never blinked as he turned and said, "That is the “soup of the day,” just as you ordered."

No one said a word as Gino stared at soup bowl, then slowly picked up his spoon, then repeatedly bashed the hell out of the egg.

Our open-faced sandwiches and beer were served and we were getting back into the spirit of our adventure when, needless to say, someone noticed we had a minute to catch the train. We rushed en masse to the pedestrian tunnel that led to the platform to catch our train. It took two minutes to get to the loading platform, and we watched as our train slowly pulled out of the station in front of us.

"Now what?," I asked, "Should we go back to the ticket seller or can we just get on the next train?"

"Let's make sure," said Leonard, "Let's go back and check to be safe."

The ticket agent was less than pleased with us. We were taking up space in his line and he really didn't like the extra aggravation we were causing. He had to go and find the Bahnhof Meister, a figure who turned out to be as imposing as his title.

The Bahnhof Meister was a big, barrel chested man in his early fifties. He wore a full, dark blue dress uniform, complete with a red leather belt across his tunic and an imposing, official looking hat that might have been worn by an old Field Marshall. He was an imposing figure with absolutely no sense of humor.

He had to sign each one of our tickets on the back to show they were still valid. There wasn't enough room on the tickets to write with much flair. He gruffly spoke to us, without a single indication we were all from the same planet. He turned and pointed at the train board, showing us when and where the next train to Luxembourg would arrive. We had about twenty minutes and decided not to screw up again. We walked up to the platform and plopped our bags down and waited.

In exactly nineteen and a half minutes, a passenger train quietly pulled in on the track behind us. We turned around and watched as people boarded, and within a minute it was underway, heading out of the station. There were no indications of any train any where near our track.

The Bahnhof Meister soon strode out to the platform outside his office and bellowed in German loud enough to be heard all the way back in Bitburg. His face was as red as his belt. We knew what he was saying even though we didn't speak a word of German. We had missed the train yet again! We were waiting by the wrong track and we hadn't understood the blaring loudspeaker. We had just stood there like fence posts while the loudspeakers tried to tell us the train was behind us! 

We were marched once again into his tiny office. He made us sit down, not letting any one of us out of his sight. He had finally filled in every open space on the back of the tickets, and he wasn't taking any chances he'd have to issue new tickets. It was like writing your telephone number on a matchbook match after someone else had already written theirs. He was silent as he rocked back and forth in his chair, watching the clock on the wall. It was not a rocking chair. Every once in a while he would scowl at us, then turn back and look at the clock.

Finally, he stood up and said, "Los!" and strode out of the office. We followed along as he marched to the platform. The train pulled in and stopped with a coach door inches from our feet. The Bahnhof Meister stood stiffly and waited while we boarded the train. The train was slowly rolling before he turned on his heel and strode back into his office.

Leonard, leaning back to look out the coach window said, "Want to bet he's headed for a schnapps?"

The train we boarded was headed from Copenhagen to Paris. Like the bus ride earlier, there weren't many empty seats. Most of the sofa-style, leather covered seats had people sprawled out, scattered around the car. The compartments were just like in the movies, except not as plush. These were the "B" coaches and they were mostly filled. Hank and I found a couple of seats together, but I think Leonard was carefully looking for a good-looking seating partner. I decided that was only in the movies, too, looking at the mostly tired, unhappy looking travelers who mostly didn't even bother to look up.

Soon after leaving Trier, the train crossed over the Mosel and headed southwest toward Wasserbillig, just over the Luxembourg border. We stopped not ten minutes out of Trier while the German locomotive dropped off and was replaced by a Luxembourg diesel. After a few moments we were under way again, and before we could really get settled in, we were pulling into the main train station in the city of Luxembourg. The two cities are less than thirty miles apart.

Surprise! You needed your ticket to get off the train! They don't do this in the movies! Luckily we all scrounged up our mutilated tickets and turned them over to the bemused Luxembourg agents who soon start chatting and laughing among themselves. I wondered what the Bahnhof Meister wrote in that small space.









Saturday, July 22, 2017

Nostalgia

Florida Weekly Newspaper runs an annual writing contest based on a random photograph they post as an inspiration.  I had one of my writings published several years ago (See my blog "Stuff") based on a photo of a doll in a basket on a staircase.  This years photo is an open, European window, which immediately flooded me with memories.  This is the result.
* * * * * 
The photograph in the Florida Weekly immediately flooded me with nostalgia. There is no hope a memoir will ever make it through the gauntlet of astute critics who judge the writing contest, but perhaps I will find a glimmer of understanding when I explain why a photograph of an open, European style window, overlooking a courtyard or narrow street, a scene that most of us have only seen in movies, brings tears to my eyes: A friend of mine fell out of one. He did it backwards, and with his pants down around his ankles.

Nostalgia, by Internet definition, is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” Aah, the unrecoverable past. That period when you alone remember exactly what happened. Even those with you at the time may not share your nostalgia, such as Tom’s recollection of landing on a stack of trash cans in the alley behind the Flamingo Bar in Luxembourg.

Parlez-vous fran├žais?” asked the gendarme, staring down at the semi-conscious, intoxicated young American tangled up among the trash cans. Tom had no idea which country he was in. After all, he arrived in Germany from the United States only that morning and never before heard of Luxembourg. It was also the first time in his life he was legally old enough to drink.

Frank and I also had a problem. We had driven Tom and five other newly arrived airmen to Luxembourg from nearby Bitburg Air Base in Germany for their introduction to the night clubs which surrounded the main train station in Luxembourg City. They’re all closed now, with the changing times of finance and world respect, but in those days, they were a right of passage for many young American servicemen. Tom’s marvelous adventure started without us, and that was a problem.

We were official sponsors for the new arrivals from stateside, all recent graduates of technical school. Our duties included walking them through the procedures of arriving at their new assignment. After myriad sign-ins and drawing their bedding and equipment, assigning them rooms and bunks, getting their paper work squared away, as soon as Retreat, the bugle call played on the base loudspeakers to signal the end of duty day, blared across the base, we became “unofficial” sponsors, and our duties changed.

Who wants to go to Lux for a drink and a chance to meet a French girl?” was the question. The response that night was unanimous. Back then, before European Union, the border crossing at Echternach was at a two-lane, stone bridge, with an old fashioned red and white cross bar that had to be quaintly raised and lowered for each car. Today, you zip across the autobahn bridge high above the town and the Sauer River and don’t realize you’ve crossed a border. But, in those days we had to stop and show our military identification cards, before we were given the priceless, limp wave of the hand that said, “Oh, you again. Go ahead, go ahead!”

Us old guys would sit and drink the fifteen cent beer while the new guys ran around like, well, kids in a candy store. After half an hour or so, we realized Tom had gone to the toilette and had not returned. It got very serious quickly as we had the owners search for our missing ward to no avail. He had disappeared into thin air! To make matters worse, the bars closed exactly at midnight.

The gendarmes walked in at closing time. “Allez!” they said, and we found ourselves standing in the dimly lit street wondering what to do next. We split into teams, slowly driving around, looking in vain through the oddly yellow-lit streets. Soon, Frank said, “Let me head back to base. I’m almost out of gas.!”

Federal prison crossed my mind as I finally headed across the tranquil Luxembourg countryside headed back to Bitburg. Court martial was obviously unavoidable.

Frank ran toward me as I walked into the four-story barracks. “He’s here! Tom is here!” We ran to the fourth floor, where Tom was snoring in his bunk. We dumped him on the floor and demanded an explanation.

The Luxembourg police drove me to the border crossing, flagged down the first car headed to Bitburg, and put me in it! The driver dropped me off in front of the barracks.”

What were you doing sitting in the window?” We asked.

Well, I wasn’t going to get one of those diseases from the toilet seat!” he said.

Aah, Nostalgia.