Archive for November, 2009

The driving exam, European style

November 25, 2009

In order to be able to drive off the base it was necessary for one to obtain an International Drivers License.  This is actually a small book roughly the size of a passport and contains pages of information about you printed in many different languages.  Since I was able to drive on base I thought that adding the ability to drive off base would be pretty easy.  Not so.

First off, driving anywhere in Germany at sixteen just isn’t done.  A German kid has to be at least eighteen and take a three week course in driving just to be able to take the written test for his license.  It was offered to Americans as courtesy since we had differing laws.

I ended up downtown in the city hall facing the stern visage of a bespectacled matron of indeterminate age who gave me a tight-lipped smile meant, I can only guess, to make me feel welcome – about as much as much as a crowd of foosball rowdies.  I explained my purpose in disturbing her morning coffee to which she responded by slapping a couple dozen forms on the counter and pointing to a small table fixed to the wall.  I suppressed a grunt as I lifted the paperwork and carried it over to the table.

As you might not know, Germans are very fond of paperwork.  You must have all your papers in order to do anything so I began sweating through the answers to all the boxes on the forms.  For all I knew, I could be enlisting in the German army as I painfully translated German officialese into English.  Finally, I was finished and returned to the counter only to be told that now I had to go to another counter with my completed paperwork.

I loaded the wheelbarrow with the forms and trundled them over to the other counter and dumped them in front of a pleasant-faced guy bordering on the “Onkel Otto” persona.  He took his time scanning all my papers and finally pronounced “Ve vill calling you when made the decision” is all he said to me then turned to his desk.  Decision?  What decision was that pray tell?  Somewhat deflated, I left the building and headed home to await The Decision.

Several days passed until I received a phone call from, I think, Onkel Otto who informed me that I was to be at city hall in two days for the written test.  This is a test that is more visual that any other test I have ever taken.  Most traffic signs in Germany, or, for that matter anywhere else in Europe, are visual.  For example, a train engine with a gate in front of it, followed below by three red stripes means a railroad crossing in three hundred meters.  The striped diminish one at time until you are facing either a clear track or a gate.

Hundreds of other signs, mostly round with red borders, depicting almost anything from numbers (speed limits) to ducks (ducks) can be found.  If there is a red slash through it that means the opposite.  Parking, for instance, can be very confusing.  Parking areas are marked with a square blue sign with a “P” in it but No Parking is depicted by a round blue sign with a red border and a slash through it.  One sign one gets used to is the square yellow “Umleitung” (Detour), the end of the detour is marked by the very same sign, but with a red slash through it.  Simple, no?

As a sidebar, you might be interested (or not) in this web site:

In any case, I was ready for the test when I arrived at the appointed place and time.  I was not ready for the huge booklet with hundreds of questions in it.  When told to start, I plowed manfully through the tome checking boxes and scratching my head.  By the time I was finished, only slightly before getting the fisheye from Onkel Otto, I was bathed in sweat.

Without a word, he pointed to a chair, fittingly in a corner, where I was to await the verdict.  He sat at his desk and scanned my answers a page at a time and, when done, I swear, he pulled out a stamp pad and a big stamp and clonked each page in rapid succession – Bam, Bam, Bam.  That the ink was red didn’t help my apprehension at all.  With great care Onkel Otto put away his stamping materials and smiled.  I hoped this was a good thing.

“Zweiundneunzig” he announced – ninety-two – and I exhaled slowly. “Now must come the driving test.  Ve vill calling you when made the decision”.  He and Stern-faced matron must have studied the same English text.  I once more left to await the calling.

This time, it only took a week to get the call.  Since I had to bring a car for the test (naturally) my dad drove me down to city hall in my Volkswagen.  There were several people ahead of me this time so I had to wait until an examiner was free for me.  While I waited, I chatted with some of the other perspirees ready to meet the examiner.  The one right next to me explained that he needed his license so he could go on the road to sell his wares – he was a salesman of work clothing.  That sounded very interesting to me.

Finally, my turn came and I was marched out into the courtyard for my exam.  First I had to demonstrate that I knew where all the safety equipment was – horn, emergency brake, ‘mox nix’.  The last item was, at that time, almost universally known to everyone in Germany.  It was actually two little lighted ‘flippers’ that appeared from each side of the car that indicated which way you were planning on turning.  The ‘mox nix’ moniker appeared from the corruption of the German ‘machts nichts’ which means ‘never mind’ or ‘makes no difference’ (take your pick) since whichever side the flipper popped out of was not necessarily the direction the car would eventually turn.  The flippers had a strong tendency to stick in the ‘out’ position.  But I digress.

In keeping with the flavor of this entertaining story, I will keep the comments made by the examiner in their German context and provide translations parenthetically.  Some things don’t translate well – like screams of terror – so I will keep these to a minimum.

We pulled out of the parking lot into the main stream of traffic in the middle of a town in the middle of the noon hour.  The first louder-than-normal words out of his mouth were “Bremson!  Bremson!” (Brakes! Brakes!) as we approached a rather primitive stop mechanism.  I say this because the stop “light” consisted of a clock-like dial with an arrow that rotated around the “face” which was marked with alternating quarters of red and green.  As the arrow approached the red portion drivers would speed up to try and get through before the arrow hit red.  When I attempted the same this prompted the response.  There was no yellow portion.

Cars around me began revving their engines as the arrow approached green and, slightly before it actually arrived, they were off like a shot – except me, I wasn’t ready until at least twelve microseconds later.  Off down the street we went, with the examiner pointing the way for me.  I missed one point and as I approached a “Y” intersection he began murmuring “Links!” (Left!) with increasing fervor and finally hit me with “Nein, dein Anderen Links!” (No, you OTHER left).  I eased into the adjacent lane with a minimum of horn-blatting and took the left as indicated; accompanied with my indignant mox nix pointing the way.

One of the more colorful comments was given after we had launched ourselves over a railroad crossing: “Gleise müssen viel langsamer warden” (tracks must be taken much slower).  Thanks, and I’ll be happy to have your hat re-blocked after mashing it into the roof.

Finally, came the parallel parking part.  We searched for some place we could do this, but noontime traffic had taken up most of the really good places.  I headed towards a narrow street and, as I prepared to enter it, I glanced at the sign: totally red, with a white bar horizontally across it.  I was about to enter a “no entry” road.  As I dodged nimbly to one side, the examiner hit me with “Dass eine Einbahnstrasse ist!” (That is a one-way street).  Yeah, I know, I just dodged it; weren’t you with me?

At long last, we ended our trip in and about town and headed back to city hall.  I committed no more noticeable infractions, but spent a bit of time watching out my peripheral vision at him as he started ticking boxes on his paperwork.  Uh oh, this could spell disaster.  As we parked and got out, he pumped my hand once, announced (are you ready for this?) “Ve vill calling you when made the decision”.

A week later I received my brand new International Drivers License in the mail.  I was the first among my peers to receive one and that made me very happy.  My first off-base drive found my girlfriend Virginia and I tooling along the river we used to ride our bikes along.  It was much better this way instead of puffing up hills.  Whole new vistas of travel opened to us.  And, at forty-two miles to the gallon, pretty inexpensive also.




A Wonderful Christmas Gift

November 14, 2009

Since it is nearing Christmas time again (Yeah, I know; it is still six weeks away – but all the stores would have you believe it is tomorrow) I think relating what, for me, was my finest Christmas of my teenage years, would be in order.

It is the winter of 1958 and all through the housing area plans are being made for parties everywhere.  In Germany everyone really gets into the spirit.  Huge gatherings in town squares with caroling, red noses, smoky fires in barrels, chestnuts, warm drinks of an alcoholic nature and the like are the norm.

My girlfriend Virginia, with whom I had been going steadily (and steady) for over two years (I may have mentioned her before), and I dressed warmly and headed out the gate to town.  The sky was the color of lead and the wind, while brisk, was hardly noticed by us as we walked arm-in-arm down the street.  Halfway to the Stadtplatz (City Square) it began to snow.  Large, fluffy, flakes drifted downward and smacked us in the face wetly.  We were oblivious to this however as we savored the solitude of our walk.  We only had eyes for each other.

I had plenty of time on the stroll to reflect just how lucky I was to have Virginia as my friend and lover.  She had a droll wit, sparkling personality, and, most of all would put up with me.  She would catch me in a half-turn looking at her and glance back with a smile and say “What?”  “Nothing” I would reply; “Just happy to be with you today”.  She responded with a hand squeeze that sent thrills through my being.  Damn, she looked beautiful with snowflakes in her hair.

Turning the final corner, we entered the square.  The festivities were just getting started so we walked to the middle and joined in.  First off, we had to have some warm chestnuts which we bought from a vendor who had his charcoal fired pot overflowing with chestnuts.  Right next to him was a Glühwein seller.  Glühwein is a hot, spiced, wine which is usually made from a poor vintage wine.  What they do is add spices and honey to make it drinkable again.  Topped off with a cinnamon stick there is nothing else that will beat cold weather.

Armed with a paper cone of chestnuts each and a cup of Glühwein, we were ready for the rest of the fun.  As we wandered from kiosk to kiosk looking at all the items for sale I began thinking that this would be the perfect time to see what Virginia was interested in and get it for Christmas.  I had a fairly well paying job in the base PIO photo lab (Press Information Office) so, at the moment, I was flush with cash.  I had to get her something memorable because we had come to realize that this would be our last winter together.  Her dad was being reassigned in the spring and who knew what would happen then.

We passed tray after tray of doodads, gewgaws, and whatnots, she and I would pause and look.  Several items caught her eye, but I could see there was nothing she really wanted.   One vendor, in an isolated corner of the square, had a huge amount of silver items hanging from strings across his cart.  She has always been interested in anything worn around the neck.  She has a completely full jewelry case of necklaces and the like.  Still, she wanted to see what he offered.

I saw her reach for an item, pull her hand back, and then reach again for it.  When I saw what it was, a slow glow appeared behind her ears and down to her throat.  It was a miniature Eiffel Tower – about six centimeters long on a delicate chain.  I whispered in her ear “I know what you’re thinking” which brought her flush to full bloom.  She smiled at me without saying anything and held the charm to her throat.  “It’s perfect” she proclaimed.

She and I became one, in every sense of the word, on the train to Paris last summer.  It was I had to agree, the perfect gift.  I wondered if, every time she saw it, she would think of me.  I knew I wouldn’t forget that trip for as long as I lived.  ‘The first time’ is just that and cannot be repeated.

But then, she looked at the tag.  It was a solid silver charm and cost a great deal of money – even back then.  With a sad last look, she put it back in the little blue box and handed it back to the vendor.  I hugged her and made our apologies to the old guy as we walked away.  I knew I was going to come back here so I winked at him as I turned.

Continuing around the square we ran into a group of people standing in front of a small bandstand with a collection of musicians on it.  It isn’t often you get to listen to a band composed of an accordion, a trumpet, a set of drums and two guitars.  Surprisingly, they made very good music.  We sang along to a few Christmas carols and a couple of popular songs while sipping our second Glühwein.

We eventually got a little hungry so we went in search of a place to eat.  Neither one of us really wanted to have just a wurst or something like that so we headed to our favorite little Inn for dinner.  Before we left the square though I excused myself and headed for the restroom.

I rapidly walked away and headed immediately for the little stall where she had seen the necklace charm.  The old guy remembered me and we chatted for a bit on the quality of the charm.  He admitted that what he had hanging and on display was his “tourist items” but then brought a box out from a shelf under his cart.  It held a much more lustrous (and heavy) charm that I was sure would cost much more.  He indicated that he would like me to buy it for my young lady because it obviously meant something to the both of us and that he would sell it to me at half the listed price.  “She is very pretty and should have the best” he said.  I couldn’t have agreed more; and bought it.

I caught up with her and we walked a few blocks to the Inn which was crowded, but not full. We had a wonderful dinner and strolled back up the hill to the housing area in the snow.  It was a perfect end to a perfect day.

Virginia and I hosted the final party before Christmas for our group of friends.  It was a great party with a complete dinner, loads of games, and intimate dancing afterwards.  Between the games and dancing, however, was a gift-giving.  Each of us gave and received gifts from everyone else.  One at a time, we opened them.  I could hardly contain myself until Virginia announced that she would open mine.  The box had changed from square to a rectangle and the color from blue to red, but she knew right off what it was and with a cry of joy opened it.

She threw her arms around me and, for a moment, there was nobody else in the room for me but her as we kissed.  Man, I really loved this girl – this woman.  I nuzzled her neck as I passed the chain around it and fastened the clasp.  All the other girls gathered around, ‘ooh-ed’ and ‘ahh-ed’ at it.  I am sure that everyone who had been on the trip with us knew exactly what it signified but I didn’t care.

For the rest of the party I would catch her fingering the charm and smiling at me.  When we danced, we held tight to each other; and, when it was time to go home, we walked arm-in-arm through the snow to her house in the dark, still, night air.  For the rest of her, and my, time there in Germany I don’t think I ever saw her without the charm around her neck.



Trip to the Worlds Fair – 1958, Part 4

November 4, 2009

After breakfast the next day, all of us piled into our two cars and headed back to the fairgrounds.  The parking, as usual, was chaotic but we finally managed to park together way at the back of the dusty lot.  By the time we got to the entrance gate we were already tired and thirsty.

The parents split off again leaving us kids to our own devices so we took off for the nearest place we could get something to drink.  As it turned out, the Belgian Congo exposition was the nearest and they had a sort of coconut drink that was very refreshing – also expensive.  We all had two of the milky drinks before we moved on.

Next on our agenda was the cable ride over (or actually beside) the Atomium.  It was a simple end-to-end lift with little round cars that seated four.  The cables actually ran through the open structure of the Atomium so you approached it, dove through, and popped out the other side.

After that ride, we queued up for almost an hour wait to get enter the Atomium.  Once inside, you had to be a hardy soul because there were elevators, but they were only for the sick and infirm.  We managed to huff and puff our way into one of the upper bells but decided to go no further.  I’d climbed to the top of the Washington Monument and had no desire to do that again.  After spending a while looking out the portholes at the entire fair grounds we left and took the tram to the Soviet Building.

Except for the French and the United States buildings, the USSR had probably the largest building on the grounds.  It was immense and held all sorts of interesting displays.  There was the obligatory huge statue of Lenin but what caught my eye was the replica of Sputnik in the aviation section.  There were also sections on agriculture, machines of all description, and a car assembly line.

By contrast, the US building was quite different.  It had wide tree-lined areas where periodically a fashion show would be held; demonstrations of “future homes” which had great expectations, but just didn’t pan out; a lot of fountains with synchronized water spouts; and, finally, a glass-walled booth with “Waldo” controls in them so that they could reach out and tap people on the shoulder and the like.  Waldoes are the name given to the remote control arms used mostly in nuclear laboratories to handle dangerous items.  One guy manning the controls was so good that he could lift a person’s wallet right out of their back pocket – with that person’s permission that is.

The three of us began to crash around three in the afternoon and began searching for another café. We found one at the US pavilion and rested our weary feet.  After a short burst of rapid-fire French, Adrianne told me that they were planning on leaving this evening for home.  Colombe looked sad at this announcement, but I guess she knew it all along.  In silence we trekked back to our meeting place for the trip back to camp.

Adrianne headed for the beach again while Colombe and I walked towards the boat rental place.  This time we just got a swan pedal boat and aimlessly wandered the lake.  At one point, we ended up on the little island but there were so many people on it we couldn’t be alone.  By the time our hour was up both of us were pretty frustrated at our attempts to get off by ourselves.

As the sun fell towards the horizon, we chanced on a perfect place.  There was a large structure that sat off to the side near a wooded area.  From the front it appeared to reach the ground, but when approached from the back through the woods you could see that it was supported about six feet from the ground on pilings.  There was a door in the lattice held by a simply hook which, when opened, allowed us to get under the building.

We worked our way deeper under the building until outside noises faded and we were completely screened from view.  When I threw down our ever-present blanket Colombe sat and then lay back reaching out to me with her hand.  When I took it, she pulled hard and I dropped down near her.  She began immediately raining kisses all over my face and neck.  Not to be outdone, I returned her effort myself.  Kisses and caresses became more and more serious until we were both panting for breath.

In the process, her blouse had become unbuttoned and her bra removed.  My shirt was gone completely and my belt unfastened.  She lay on her back and, while holding my gaze with those incredibly blue eyes, lifted her hips and pulled her Capri pants down to her knees.  I removed them completely and put them aside.

She reached out and found my erection and was in the process of liberating it when I stopped her for a second.  She looked puzzled at me until I held up a foil packet I had taken from my dad’s shaving kit the other day.  All she could say was “Bon!”  And she wasn’t kidding.  I ripped it open and we both rolled it down.

I rapidly removed my shoes and pulled my clothing the rest of the way off.  When I bent over and began kissing her breasts she closed her eyes and started humming to herself.  She hadn’t let go of me though and while I kissed lower and lower, she did a slow stroke that drove me wild.

I finally had reached a turning point and pulled the elastic of her panties away and down her legs.  I rolled over her and between the two of us our bodies met, and joined.  It happened so rapidly that her eyes flew open and she gasped once and recovered enough to begin pulling on my hips as she raised her knees.  Silence punctuated by kisses, sighs, gasps, and an occasional word in English and French ensued as we melted into each other.

Once she rolled me over to be on top for a while and then let me roll her back over as our passion erupted into a mutual climax.  She bit my shoulder again, much harder this time, to keep from crying out; I had to let out a small shout as she did.  Finally, and much too soon, it was over and we lay back in the afterglow gasping for air.

Slowly we got dressed, shook out the blanket, and made our way to the door.  Just before we opened it, she kissed me deeply and thanked me once more for the wonderful time.  She would be leaving in an hour or so and I would never see her again.  I’d have the memories though for the rest of my life.

Hand in hand we walked back to our tents and rejoined the others for dinner.  Conversation was relative light, but quiet, as we finished supper and they went off to pack up their car.  As the got ready to leave, Adrianne and Colombe both came over and kissed me; the former with a tiny bit of tongue and the latter with a lot of tongue.  She was a hell of a kisser.  Both turned, got into the car, and they drove off.  I had an address and a telephone number but I wasn’t sure I would ever write or call.  One never knew though.

We left Brussels the next afternoon and went back to Stadt.  It was a very quiet trip except when my mom noticed that the little bite mark had a twin on the other side.  She didn’t really say anything, but I could hear wheels turn as she mulled that one over.  I wasn’t ready to lie to my parents about what had happened so I was thankful that neither one of them asked.

All told, it was a hell of a trip to the Worlds Fair.