Drinking and “Wake Up Little Susie”

School was as boring as most of base life.  In winter, the rooms were steam heated and stifling, in spring when the heat had been turned off but before warm weather really arrived, the rooms would freeze your feet and force you to wear your coat all the time.  Our teachers – pardon me for dumping on them – were generally ones that managed to take a civil service examination and get hired.  They, for the most, part were only in Germany to take vacations and have fun; not to teach a bunch of hooligans (their word) who wouldn’t listen.  We had an art teacher whose only job previously was at a stateside kindergarten. She had us making cutout doilies and coloring in a book.  What a huge waste of air she was.  We also had a History teacher that would, in later years, remind me very much of Ben Stein’s speech delivery: very slow, halting and dry.

There were some very notable exceptions.  My language teacher, Mr. Espana, spoke six languages – all fluently.  He tried to teach us basic German but only managed to get mostly blank stares in return.  I tried mightily and received passable grades.  It was only until he introduced me to a group of local German Boy Scouts that I really took to the language.  There will be more on that later.

Another outstanding teacher was my Science teacher.  I have tried mightily to remember his name, but keep coming up with a blank.  Under his instruction, I learned physical science and loved it.  Our classes would go out into the countryside and visit ponds, rivers, forests, rock formations, and other great things.  He instilled in us a sense of wanting to learn instead of dreading being taught anything.  For some reason, but only secondary, his classes tended to attract more girls then boys.  Note I only say this in passing.  It was nothing to me at the time.  Right!

Aha, thought associations made the connection:  his name was Mr. Wagner, and he was great to be around.  Among other things he taught a group of us the different ways of communicating with each other: semaphore flags and Morse Code by light, buzzer and radio.  I studied diligently and passed my examination for a Novice Amateur Radio License under his tutelage.  There was no agreement with Germany at the time for licensing of US hams in country, but they did allow us to take the license downtown for a German license.  Of course, the exam was in German, which I knew well by then.  I passed the first time and received my operator’s license.

Not having a place for a shortwave radio at home (nor could I get permission from the base engineers to put up an antenna) I had to rely on buses to go downtown to the local club for operating experience.  I met a great bunch of guys and gals at the club.  The ratio was about even for boys to girls.  Technical issues appeared to not be a problem with the distaff side of the German populace.  Many of the American girls that I tried to teach Morse code to simply wouldn’t apply themselves hard enough to even learn the entire alphabet.  There was an exception though – Virginia.  She liked being able to send me love notes that nobody else could read.  In one class, we would chatter back and forth simply by waving our index fingers like flags.  Not one single teacher ever got wise to us as we passed the time ‘talking’ in class.

I mentioned that we did pass love notes in the previous paragraph; she and I had begun going steady during the Sadie Hawkins dance.  In any given school with over four hundred and fifty students you would find many pairings, splittings, hatreds, and attractions among the students – mostly between boys and girls – but not always.  Virginia and I weathered the storm by staying together for almost the entire three years my dad was stationed there.  From the day we met at the Teen Club until, once again, I had to say goodbye to a loved one as she left for Italy, we hardly ever dated anyone other than each other.  All was not clear sailing because I thought at one time that I had lost her to a jerk, er, jock, from the soccer club.  She only went out twice with him and then came right back to me because, as she put it, he had his hands all over her and she didn’t like that because it wasn’t me.

I had almost gotten used to having my heart torn out of my chest by saying goodbye to someone I cared for.  Being a service kid has advantages beyond measure, but knowing that any long-term relationship is doomed because a parent is being sent somewhere else looms large over it.  Virginia and I were seriously thinking of ways we could remain in Germany – like getting married on the quiet.  She nixed that idea, but not without thinking seriously about it.  I just wanted to run away to Paris and live like a Bohemian making love day and night.  I was later to get a portion of that wish.

One lonely Saturday night when Virginia’s family went visiting another family at a base nearby, and my parents were out also, I wondered just what my dad’s bourbon tasted like.  I had never even gotten a sip of it before so I was profoundly curious.  As my parents were gone for the night so I helped myself.  I had no idea what a ‘jigger’ was, so I simply filled a small water glass from the bottle.  I sat back on my bed and began sipping it.  Hey, that’s not too bad I thought.  A few more sips and it tasted right good to me.  Several sips later I was boiled as an owl.  When they came home, I was hanging over the edge of the bed, groaning that my eyeballs had fallen out and I couldn’t see to find them.

My head hurt, my stomach was turned inside-out and here was my dad’s smiling face floating in and out of focus asking me if I wanted another “shot”.  He could be so cruel at times and this was definitely one of them.  All I wanted him to do was put me out of my misery.  I wanted nothing to do with hard liquor for several years afterward.  Finally, to add injury to illness, (as my dad related to me the next morning) my mom had clapped a hand to her mouth and rushed from the room stifling a huge guffaw.

The next morning, for some reason, my head was reasonably clear and I went to my normal bowling league.  Did fairly well as I recall.  After that foray into alcohol, I stayed mostly sober for a long time.  I say mostly because I did allow a small beer from time to time when I found myself downtown during mealtime.  No more hard liquor though, no sir, not I.  At least until I discovered Schnapps.

Virginia and I did get into trouble once in what we termed the “What Were We Thinking” caper.  One fine Saturday, we decided to cycle our way over to a neighboring base about fifteen kilometers away (9.3 miles).  We packed a lunch on a nice, sunny day and headed out.  The first part was really great.  We would stop and take pictures, snack a bit, and just generally take our time.  The trip involved descending down to a river and climbing back up again on the other side to a small plateau.

The descent was made fairly fast as we flew downhill.  Once we hit the river, we stopped again to take pictures and drink lemonade from a small kiosk.  Refreshed, we started up the other side.  The grade was not very steep, but it certainly was steady.  Gradually, we slowed down to a crawl and, finally, gave up and walked our bikes the rest of the way up.  We still hadn’t tumbled to the fact that we would have to go back up the way we just came down so fast – and the grade on that side was really steep.

We arrived on top puffing for air and just sat at the side of the road for what seemed like hours.  Actually, I think we rested for about ten minutes.  Over to the base we went and did some visiting with friends.

On the way back, the sun was occasionally hidden behind clouds, but we just thought of it as relief from the sun.  Soon, the clouds cover was complete and we could hear rumblings in the distance.  Not good.

We blazed down the hill to the river in record time, crossed immediately and started up the other side.  We had just begun when the skies opened up and dumped heaps of rain on us.  Large trees sheltered us for the most part, but they began leaking and this added to our misery.

Virginia had me stop for a second as she noted her back tire was flat.  Somewhere on the trip down or across the river she had punctured it.  Oh, great, now we had rain and a flat.  We found a small open-fronted shed sitting next to a field and dragged the bikes into it.  Both of us carried a tool kit and patching material so we got busy pulling the tire off the rear wheel and did the patch.  Part of the procedure was that the tube had to be dry – this was a problem as nothing we had was dry.  All we could do was wave the tube around and hope it would help.

Finally, we got it patched and re-installed on the wheel.  During this process, we noticed it was getting hard to see very well.  It was getting very dark outside and the wind was coming up even more than before.  In what was probably the best decision we made all day we decided to just stay where we were until the rain abated.  Pushing a couple of hay bales around, we created a nice little nest where we could be out of the wind.  I stretched out and she cuddled up and laid her head on my chest.

We were so beat that within minutes we fell asleep.  A loud MOOO from a wandering cow jolted us awake – but two hours later.  We were now deep into twilight and going to be really, really late getting back home.  We still had about a mile-long climb ahead of us even before we got to the road to Stadt.  We were in so much trouble now.  Use your cell phone I hear you saying – hah; in 1957?

The rain had tapered off to a light drizzle so we started out trudging up the hill again.  Our food was gone, we didn’t have any more water, and it was almost full dark now.  Finally we hit the top of the hill and flew down the road towards home.  We eventually made it back to her house about four hours late.  Her mom was getting frantic but at least she hadn’t called Virginia’s dad yet.  She did call my mom though and got her started up so when I hot-footed it over to my house I got the third degree also.

I don’t think it would have been so bad if Virginia’s mom hadn’t found bits of straw stuck in her hair and, worst of all, in the waistband of her pants.  The “but, mom, all we did was get out of the rain” defense didn’t cut any ice with her.  The sentence was: three days confined to the house and school only.  I caught hell from my dad for getting Virginia into trouble but I think I made up for it by going over to her house the next day and apologizing to her parents.  The whole time I had the eerie feeling her dad was going to load up his shotgun.

T.O.M.

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