Posts Tagged ‘young adventures’

I wrote a book!

January 31, 2012

In my copious spare time, I managed to write a little novel. This is my first attempt at writing for public (other than here on WordPress) so I don’t know what the reaction will be.  It is basically a love story that spans almost twenty years.  I drew a bit on my own experiences and embellished them somewhat then added flights of pure fancy.

Anyway, here’s the URL for the first chapter:

I intend to add chapters about once a week or so.  Please let me know what you think; good, bad, indifferent, whatever.




Fort Possum, Part 2

November 4, 2010

We met again the next afternoon.  Fired up once more with the spirit of adventure we rushed around like demented squirrels gathering up bits of board, pipe, nails, string, cardboard, and other items to make our fort a home.  My brother’s wagon was piled high with goodies so we had to be doubly careful not to dump the stuff on the ground.  Oops, too late.

Once again we piled items on my brother’s wagon and set forth – again – into the woods.  We would do the picking up thing several more times on the way there.  Each time we pondered the necessity of this or that item.  We were leaving a trail of discarded things a blind person could follow into our secret location.

Finally, we arrived and unloaded.  Well, actually, it was unloaded for us because when we stopped the wagon lost a wheel and the whole load dumped yet again.  “Just leave that crap on the ground.  We’ll get it if we need it.”  Sage advice from an anonymous voice in the group.

We spent the next few hours hammering, sawing, grumbling, and making an occasional profane shout when a finger get between the hammer and the nail.  The whole fort was taking shape now and really looking good.  We had three side up as tall as the tallest one of us and as soon as we finished the roof poles we’d begin putting pieces of plywood and thick cardboard on top.  We had some of the younger guys out in the surrounding woods gathering pine boughs to help hide the fort from casual view.

It was inevitable that we were finally finished.  In our view it was a finely crafted, very good looking fort.  In reality, it was probably very leaky, and a Big Bad Wolf could huff and/or puff it right down.  But what the heck, we were proud of it.  This time, before we left, we all gathered inside and took our solemn oath never to divulge the location of this secret place.  Never mind that probably every kid in the neighborhood knew where it was.

Wearily, we trudged back to my place, tools only in the little red wagon this time.  We had exhausted all the building supplies we brought.  Also included were numerous pine branches which would no doubt turn brown and un-hide our fort.  I had to admit, as I looked back from down the trail a ways, it did seem to blend right into the side of the cliff.

All week long we took about an hour each afternoon after school and drug items of comfort down to the fort.  An old camp chair appeared.  A very threadbare (and stinky, from Tad’s dog) rug was tried, convicted and sentenced to stand guard ten feet away from the front door.  A small two-shelf bookcase was assembled into which we put all our rations, comic books, tin cans with assorted goodies in them, and other things that interested pre-teen boys.  Nobody claimed to know where the smutty magazine came from, but we all agreed that it was probably okay to keep it around for a while.  At least until we needed glasses.

Due to the inconsistencies of parents, only five of us guys got to sleep out in the fort the first weekend it was ready.  My brother and I were two of them.  A nice fellow named Bert, a rather mouthy kid named Benny, and a very quiet kid named Xavier made up the fearless five who would initiate the fort.  We packed up for the trip (all 1 mile of it) like we were attempting to scale Everest.  My mother spotted my brother and I sneaking all sorts of stuff out of the house.  She reclaimed three packages of hot dogs, one of the tins of cocoa, a huge bag of marshmallows, and a box of firecrackers that had somehow gotten mixed in with them.  “Gosh, mom, I haven’t a clue where those came from.  No, I won’t set the woods on fire.  Well, okay, I’ll put them aside.”  Poop!  Nothing is more exciting than blowing up hot dogs and marshmallows with ladyfingers.

We arrived, arranged our sleeping gear on the ground and built a very small fire on the ground in the middle of the fort.  Upon reflection, after the place filled with smoke almost immediately, we decided that we should probably have put in a stove pipe.  Motion carried.  We hacked a hole in one wall and another in the opposite wall.  After twenty minutes or so we could go back in.  The smell of smoke permeated everything.  We didn’t notice it much.  The size of the fire was carefully regulated after that.  Put a stovepipe on the list.

I had brought a tiny little solid pellet fueled stove with me and a metal canteen cup so I decided to make cocoa.  Now, the cocoa that my mom confiscated was the one that had the sugar in it so when I slurped down a huge mouthful of the awful brew I barely made it to the door blowing it out with compressed air.  “Wahg!  Ick!  Where’s the sugar,” I asked; rhetorically, it seemed.  Nobody had brought any.  Add sugar to the list.

Candles were lit when it got so dark we couldn’t discern the colors of Superman’s cape.  Errant puffs of wind through our supposedly tight walls kept putting them out, or making the flame burn off-center enough to have a half-candle standing tall with the other half melted down to the base.  Matches were dwindling pretty fast.  Add them to the list.

By nightfall proper, we had exhausted all our jokes and were down the bodily noises in the dark.  Benny entertained us with an amazingly loud medley of burps and belches.  This act was followed by Xavier who managed to bring tears to our eyes – with his exhaust fumes.  “Sorry, guys.  Hot dogs just make me fart.”  Take hot dogs off the list.

Somewhere around midnight, I guess, Bert got up and wandered around outside stubbing his toes at least six times trying to find a place to pee.  He didn’t want to turn on his flashlight because then we ‘could see him pee’ and that just wasn’t acceptable.  He had taken a candle, but it blew out and he hadn’t taken any matches with him.  He finally found a spot.  The sound of falling water affected the rest of us predictably so we all files out and created a small tsunami which flooded out at least one anthill.

Back inside, after whispering ghost stories to each other for a while we began to drop off one by one.  I think that Benny was still talking when I drifted off to sleep.

I came awake suddenly for some reason.  I couldn’t put a motivation to it, but my eyes just popped open.  I lay silent, breathing very slowly listening for whatever it was that woke me.  Bert, who was lying next to me, started pushing against my leg with his leg.  I pushed back, but he kept bumping and pushing at me.  With no warning, he began rolling over onto my stomach.  “Hey!  Dammit Bert.  Move back over, whydontcha?”  I said, and pushed back again.

“It’s not me, Tom.  I’m over here.”  His voice answered from across the fort.  “Benny!  Get your hairy arm off my face!”

“Whatd’ya mean me?  I’m still in my sack.  Kick Xavier instead.”

“It’s not me guys.”  Said Xavier.  “So who the hell is it?”

The only flashlight in the place flicked on and highlighted a huge apparition of an animal as it stood on it’s hind legs, transfixed and still, in the middle of five guys who were in the process of levitating.   “AHHHHGH!  What the fuckzat?”  Screamed someone – who sounded remarkably like me.

All six of us tried to get out the door at the same time, which solved the problem of enough ventilation since the entire wall fell with a crash.  The poor Opossum that had started all this carefully looked at us, snorted, and ambled down the path.  We gathered all our bedding, which had been sucked out the door in the vacuum behind us as we left, and peeked into the fort to see if any more  possums were forthcoming.  None were found, but the hole we had noticed before and plugged with a rock was now rock-less.  We figured he had to have come out of that hole and found we’d built a fort over him.

We decided that henceforth the fort would be known as Fort Possum.


The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (7)

June 21, 2010

It was so much nicer the next morning to wake up to the tapping on my door instead of rain tapping on the roof of my tent.  By the luck of the draw I managed to get a single room this time so I was sleepily intrigued by who might be tapping on my door at oh six hundred.  I rose, rearranged my morning woodie and opened the door a crack.

Virginia peered back at me with one eye to the narrow slit.  I whispered that we had agreed to the no hanky-panky rule, but stopped when I saw tears in her eyes.  I opened the door and let her in; taking a fast glance around the hallway to see if she had been detected.  She went and sat on my bed and grimaced.  I knew it was serious when she didn’t make some sort of ribald comment on my erection.

She told me she had woken up with a huge cramp in her calf.  According to her it pulsed with pain every time she tried to straighten her leg.  I came over, took her leg in my hands, and examined it.  She had a huge knot of muscle that tightened when I pulled the leg out towards me.  She bit her lip but still gave a small cry of pain.  I let her leg go and went to my shaving kit for some sports cream I kept there.

I told her to roll over on her stomach and bend her knee to elevate her calf.  It wasn’t until that very moment that I realized that she only had on her nightgown and nothing else.  Oops!  So much for our vow of chastity and non-panky.  I did my best to concentrate on applying the cream to her calf but my attention span there was measured in microseconds.

I used my thumbs over the tendon while holding my fingers around her ankle and working them upwards towards the bunched muscle.  I massaged as carefully as I could until slowly the knot went away.  A red place was left, but she reported that it felt much better.

She flipped over on her back, which made the hem of her nightgown ride up dangerously high and held out her arms.  I leaned down for a chaste kiss, but was pulled over into a really great smooch.  She stuck her tongue up against my lips until I opened them to admit her.  Several seconds of this brought me to a rolling boil but the fates intervened.  About the time I was ready to throw caution to the winds and jump into bed beside her, we heard a door slam and footfalls down the corridor.  I lifted my watch from the bed stand and saw that it was now oh six thirty – the time we had all agreed on to get up.  What a bummer.

I sprang back to the vertical (and, believe me, everything was vertical) and pulled her to her feet.  We held each other, kissed, and then I reluctantly opened the door a crack and reconnoitered.  The coast was clear so she pecked me on the cheek as she passed out the door.  Great!  Here I was all dressed up so to speak, and nowhere to go.  Fortunately, the shower was cold as the boiler hadn’t been fired up yet.

Breakfast was the usual Continental breakfast of various small rolls, pieces of lunchmeat, jams and jellies, and assorted sticky buns.  Coffee was plentiful and tasty, but I decided to have tea this morning just to be different.  Today was the day we would pedal all the way home.  It was a longish run but if we left early enough and didn’t dawdle too much we’d be home by late afternoon.

The one place I intended to poke around was along the Kyll River because the train tracks followed both banks.  It was possible to get some really spectacular shots of steam trains while standing on bridges over the tracks or on paths beside them.  Both of which we would be using today.

Virginia and Cleo, her roommate, showed up on time and descended on the food laden table hungrily.  For as light and somewhat thin as Virginia was, she ate food like a ranch hand.  Today was no exception: two rolls loaded down with some sort of smelly cheese and a piece of bacon, a big sticky bun slathered in butter, and two cups of coffee.  While we were eating, Cleo sidled up to me and asked if everything came out all right; meaning, of course, the kink in Virginia’s calf.  I smiled and told her everything was just fine and to mind her own business (while stuffing a half-roll into her mouth).  She smiled back at me.

With a quick check of equipment we began our final day.  The air was cool at that time of morning but promised to become hotter as the day wore on.  Sunscreen was definitely going to be used if the clouds went away.  They showed signs of fading right now so I predicted they’d be gone by noon.

Almost immediately we entered and left Herforst.  This village was also surrounded by a low Roman wall, which we pedaled along for quite some time.  Soon it gave way to field after field of various cultivated crops.  There were trucks, tractors, and horse-drawn trailers spotted all over the place.  Some were laden with bags of what appeared to be fertilizer which indicated that the fields were probably owned by some major company.  Most German farmers fertilized their fields with left over animal fluids which they kept stored in wheeled tanks called ‘honey wagons’.  It was for this reason that most Americans wouldn’t eat anything bought at a farmer’s market.  Me?  I loved fresh tomatoes and stuff like that.  A little washing and after two gulps it was gone.

Speicher was a larger town with well laid out streets and nice little squares interspersed with older buildings.  The Ratzkeller was a true work of art that begged to be explored, but we didn’t have the time.  We pressed onward towards what our topographical map showed as a series of descending switchbacks to the Kyll River.

We paused at the crest of the hill and followed our road down through four huge loops as it dropped to Philippsheim.  Past the town we could also see two climbing switchbacks which we knew we would be walking up.  Oh well.

With gay abandon (with great care, really) we swooped down the curves at a stately pace.  We wanted no repeat of the disaster we had a few days earlier.  One crashed bike and banged body was all we needed this trip.  The urge was to fly down, but the turns were very tight and had loose gravel at the sides of the paving.  A sure accident in the making.

As we entered Philippsheim we heard the musical whoot of a steam engine.  As we made our way down the last bit of hill we came out above the tracks.  I stopped and took some pictures of the short passenger train while it stopped at the station for a few moments and then made off into the distance.  A glance at our trusty map showed that we would rejoin the tracks after passing though Hüttingen an Der Kyll.

Once again we climbed out of the valley on foot, pushing our bikes.  We reached the top and paused for a drink of water and a couple of buns we’d liberated from the breakfast bar.  They were delicious.

Continuing onwards, we cruised the flats, went through Gondorf, a sleepy farming town, and through even more fields of produce.  We entered the woods on the crest of the hillside over the Kyll River valley.  Through the trees we could make out sections of river glinting under the sun.  It was a long, slow drop into Hüttingen an Der Kyll.  We paused on the south bank of the river near the railroad tracks and waited.  Within ten minutes we could hear the short honks of a diesel engine as it entered town and signaled for a stop at the station.  We had hoped for a steam train, but diesels were rapidly replacing steam engines for short milk runs.  Steam was still used to great advantage on long passenger runs though which was much more to my liking.

We tried waiting for another ten minutes, but felt the press of time and moved onwards.  A very long uphill grade was taken in low gear as we climbed back out of the valley temporarily.  We would re-enter it again just past the headlands before us.  Across the valley was the road we had ascended on our outward-bound trip days ago.  We would join with it at the town of Albach and make our way home from there using the same road we left from.

Soon the air was split by another flight of jets, also F-100’s, as they took off from the base.  They weren’t overhead this time but they were still impressive.  We slowed our pace until we were barely moving.  Taking a little-used side road through the fields we weren’t bothered by traffic and remained in a bunch swapping talk, laughs, and plans for another trip.  This time, we vowed, we would just take the train.

Slightly earlier than our forecast time of arrival, we pulled into the school parking lot.  Our faithful chaperones met us there, passed out our dried tents and cold drinks.  Both were welcome.  I rode next to Virginia to her house and then peeled off towards mine.  Luckily, our bike storage was down in the basement because I was so tired I couldn’t have carried my bike up a flight of stairs.

All in all it was a great trip.  There is nothing better than the satisfaction of doing something like this with friends you really like and feel comfortable with.  There was some good-natured bantering but no harsh words were ever spoken; at least to each other, but the weather was something yet again.

NOTES:  As I go over the route we took in Google Earth, I am saddened to note that most of the rail lines we crossed or paralleled are now gone.  Ripped up in the name of progress I guess.  Major rail lines still exist in Germany, and huge amounts of passengers and goods are transported, but steam is a thing of the past.  I am sorry to see it go.

As far as Bitburg Air Base goes, the runway still exists, but there appears to be a dirt bike track near the end of runway 06, and part of the apron where jets warmed up has been converted to a go-cart track.  The taxiway that ran to the “hot standby” area from the 24 end where jets fully laden with weapons to fight the Soviet menace waited on alert has been closed.  It appears that many of the original buildings on the base are in the process of being torn down for some project or another.  The housing area still exists, but only with about half the buildings present.  My old living quarters are still visible, but Virginia’s has gone.

In many ways I really grew up on that base.  I changed from a little kid to a young man while I lived there, fell in love, made love, and had love depart from there.  I think it would sadden me greatly to go back for a visit now.


The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (6)

June 17, 2010

I woke to soggy footfalls outside my tent.  When they stopped, Virginia asked me if I had any dry covers as her tent had let water in and gotten her backpack completely wet.  I glanced at my watch – oh four hundred; four in the morning – and freed one arm to search among my bag.  I found a flannel sheet that appeared dry so I unzipped the tent fly and passed it out to her.

Her hair was stringy in the reflected light from her flashlight, which she considerately pointed away from the tent.  She added that she was really cold, and threw in a chatter or two of teeth at the end.  She looked really bedraggled and I felt really sorry that I couldn’t just have her slide into the tent with me.  I’m sure my tentmate, Barry, would have said something about that though.  Maybe not, though.  He was currently between girlfriends.  But, no way would I share.

I told her that if it was any consolation, I was pretty cold myself and the rain wasn’t helping.  Making a decision, I told her to wait a moment and that I’d come out maybe we could find a dry spot and warm up.  She flicked the light off and sloshed away.  I tried my very best to get partially dressed without waking or rolling over Barry.  As I left the tent, he cracked an eye and mumbled ‘Glück’ (Roughly: good luck).  I am sure he meant finding a dry spot.

I didn’t bother to put on boots so by the time we got to the cooking area my feet were thoroughly wet and cold.  She was sitting on the cook bench with my sheet thrown over her Indian style when I came up.  She lifted one side of it and I sat down and pulled it over my shoulders.  She snuggled closer to me and put an arm around me tightly.

She wondered aloud if the rain will ever end.  I replied that according to my nose it should right around sunup; which wasn’t for another hour yet.  All she said was ‘oh, rats’.  I had to agree.

We whispered in low tones with large pauses between sentences.  Slowly, her shivers subsided and she lowered her head to my shoulder and dozed.  I leaned back against the tent pole and nodded off myself for a little bit.  I was the first to hear the door on the Volkswagen van slide open.  One of the chaperones stepped out and landed directly in a huge puddle of water.  There was a moment of very un-chaperone-like language – especially for a lady – and then a dash for the tree line.  Virginia giggled and said that she must really have to go.

It was light enough now to asses the campsite.  Wet and sagging little tents dotted the grass amid puddles of water.  Some tents were now showing signs of their occupants stirring.  Since Virginia and I were almost dressed we started up the stove and put on a big kettle of water for coffee and tea.  Our big two-burner gas stove was working out well.

As we waited for the water to boil, the chaperone came back into camp and headed for the kitchen.  She approached and slid under the canopy with a sigh.  All she said was that she hoped the water was hot enough for coffee.  It was, so she ladled a heft amount of powder into a mug and poured in water.  In three gulps it was gone.  That seemed to make her feel better.  After fixing a refill, she slogged over to her camper bus and dove inside; slamming the door.  Virginia and I looked at each other and, at the same time, said ‘what a grump’.

The camp was coming alive now as more people were emerging from their wet tents.  Vast stretches, deep groans, and back creaks were heard as they tried to remove kinks from their spines.  I felt a lot better myself since I’d spent the last hour cuddled up to something warm.  I was still a little stiff and sore from our foolish slide down the grassy slope, but now that the gloom was being replaced by some light things didn’t appear as bad as before.

One by one the others drifted into the kitchen area and filled up on hot stimulants.  We were allowed one small half-shot of Schnapps each in our coffee to help ward off the cold.  It certainly helped me anyway.

Four of us started fixing breakfast:  rolls with butter and jam, cold cereal with milk, and a huge pan of scrambled eggs.  Nobody felt like taking the time to fix anything other than scrambled eggs so that’s what we got.  Bacon was cooked in another pan and, once it had drained, added to everyone’s plate.

Once we all had eaten, things looked a little better.  I predicted, after looking up at the cloud movement that the rain would quit in about an hour.  It was down to an intermittent drizzle even now so I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right.  The chaperones were huddled in the car having a powwow of their own.

They emerged and came over to the kitchen.  They asked us if we wanted to just go on home now instead of finishing the trip.  We thought about it for a moment and then told them we’d like to finish.  We had no more camping to do and the inn at Binsfeld was a good one with a nice restaurant close by for a good meal.  Some discussion followed, with a strong plea for us to change our minds, but we held fast.  None of the chaperones were willing to ride with us though.  In fact, they told us, as soon as we packed up and started out they were going to go to Binsfeld and check into the inn.  This was fine with us.

We washed all our dishes, packed them into the camper, and rolled our wet tents up.  These were put into the trunk of the car.  We could dry them out later today in the back of the inn.  We gathered our gear, put the panniers on the bikes and cleaned up the campground.  One never left a campground without cleaning it up.  It was an unwritten rule in Europe that you always cleaned up after yourself.  Campers here in the US could use that ethic themselves for the most part.

I was just a short push uphill through dripping trees on both side of the road until we reached the plateau on top.  Just as we emerged from the woods, the sun finally made it’s appearance.  Off to our left was the town of Dodenberg.  We discussed taking a brief detour into town.  The guys were for pushing on, but the girls claimed they wanted public restrooms.  They won; and we cycled into town.

It wasn’t much of a town, just a crossroads in fact, but it did have a huge barn where several people were working.  We approached and asked if the girls could use the facilities.  We were given permission by the farm owner himself.  While we were taking turns washing up, we chatted with him.  He was a florid guy, fairly tall, with huge hands.  While we talked, he pitched hay into a large bin from a trailer packed with it.  In order to repay him, several of us grabbed forks and helped.  Bet you thought I was going to say ‘pitched in’.

Refreshed and rejuvenated (and drained of early morning coffee), we left the group in the barn.  We left Dodenberg, swept across a small hill and descended into a valley to the town of Gladbach.  The town itself was interesting because it still had bits and pieces of Roman architecture within a partial Roman wall.  When we emerged on the other side, we all groaned at the sight of our ride ahead.  It steeply ascended the far side of the valley through a forest of trees.

I consulted the topographical map and said that there was a small trail that led directly to the top and shortened the trip to Niersbach, but was soundly booed by everyone.  They’d had enough of shortcuts to Hell.

In the full sunlight we trudged up the hill.  We had to walk single-file because of the narrowness of the road.  Every time a bus or truck went by, we’d get a blast of diesel smoke.  Maybe it was my imagination, but it sure seemed that trucks liked to shift gears when they were right next to us.

We attained the top, blew past the turn off to Greverath, and continued on the ridgeline towards Niersbach.  Once we got there, we stopped for a leisurely lunch in a very nice outdoor restaurant.  Cold cuts never tasted like this in camp that’s for sure.  Big slices of spicy salami, broad chinks of yellow and orange cheeses, plus gobs of very hot German mustard from Düsseldorf made perfect sandwiches.  I ate two of them.  We realized there were no chaperones so we allowed ourselves one beer.  To help wash down the sandwiches, of course.

We waited almost an hour before starting our again as we still had one smallish hill to climb.  It was somewhat gentle, led us past a huge gravel pit and tilled fields.  When we reached Arenrath in the early afternoon, we knew we were close to our goal.  We unconsciously worked a little harder and rode faster.

As we made a sweep to the west, we could look across the wide valley and see the road we had taken out of Binsfeld several days ago.  We would eventually join up again with it and enter Binsfeld.  By three-thirty we were pulling to halt at the inn; tired and thirsty.  Water never tasted so good as it did right then.

Two of the chaperones had decided to leave and go back home today.  That left us with only one of them; luckily, the one with the Volkswagen camper.  She had taken on all the repair items the other car had had so if we had a breakdown we stood a good chance of fixing it right away.  The departed chaperones had taken our wet gear and would air it out for us on the grass  at the center of the housing area.  We thought that was a really decent thing for them to do.

We registered, received our room assignments (under the gimlet eye of the remaining chaperone) and went across and down the road a bit to the restaurant.  There were no other travelers in town tonight so we had the place practically to ourselves.  We sat, four to a table, in the main dining room, and had a great dinner.  The servers remembered us and took very good care of us.  I like to think that they really wanted to, but it probably had to do with the fact that Americans tipped rather well.

Not a lot of people know that in Germany (as well as most of Europe) a tip is already added into the bill before being presented.  Since a lot of Americans can’t speak the language anyway, they hardly ever check the bill out and see the added tip.  They just look at it, mentally calculate a tip, and add it into the payment.  Thus, they get double their tip.  My dad was completely at ease paying his bill and walking out.  My mom always went back and added some money.  It was a game they played.

Since tomorrow was going to be a long pull home, we decided to limit our evening to around twenty-two hundred.  Amazingly, we actually drifted out of the inn’s lounge at about that time and headed for our rooms.  Being good little boys and girls there was no fraternization – darn it.


The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (5)

June 10, 2010

Another cloudy day greeted us as we rose for breakfast at the inn in Maring.  Since I was the closest thing to a weather forecaster in our group (by default as my dad was the CO of the base Weather Detachment) I predicted that we might have some small showers during the day, but should clear up by evening.  We packed and walked our bikes up the hill from Maring to the sister-town of Maring-Noviand.

It was a tough climb since the cobblestones were wet with the rain that had fallen during the night.  Our shoes kept slipping so we had to keep a grip on the brakes to keep us from falling when we slid.  With a large effort, we all made it to the top and rested for ten minutes.

When we reached the east edge of town we almost missed a turn and went up the wrong valley.  If it wasn’t for our sharp eyed map reader we would have ended up miles from where we wanted to be.  As it was, we had to backtrack about a half mile to take the right road.

We were now on a big sweeping loop through bean, corn, and beet fields again.  The ‘honey wagons’ (you don’t really want to know what they are) were out in force and the smell was horrible.  We went through yet another split town, Monzel and Osann-Monzel.  Some time later, when I asked down at my office about the split towns I was told that most of them were once separate towns, but merged their city governments and became hyphenated.  Made sense to me.

We rested beside a small stream and ate our lunch.  Clouds began building up again and, with the threat of rain, we decided to pick up the pace to our camp area.  A gentle slope up, through a narrow valley, with vineyards on the north side and a nice lake opposite was a much more pleasant climb than hiking over wet cobblestones any time.

Along the way, we passed a winery but both chaperones said we couldn’t stop for a tour.  What a drag, man.  It would have been nice to have a taste of their wine because it was a brand that most of us recognized.  Wines in Germany tended to be distributed in a smaller area than those in the States.  A thriving, local, winery built it’s reputation on the good will (and good taste) of the citizens in the immediate area.  Most Gasthaus’s, Inns and hotels utilized the local wineries and breweries almost exclusively.

We started up another slight incline and began diving into a deeply wooded area.  The trees hung over the road and put us into an even darker shadow than just the clouds alone.  A slight foggy drizzle began making us miserable.  It wasn’t enough to stop and put on rain gear, but it was enough to make us wet.  The rain gear would have kept us drier, but since it was plastic we would have steamed ourselves into dehydration rapidly.

Once through the woods, we began to cross a very wide valley which contained several small villages.  One of then, named Neuminheim, apparently existed only as a sign and nothing more.  As one of our resident wags put it “should have been painted on both side of the sign”.  Klausen, Pohlbach, and Esche were mere one-road towns with maybe two or three cross roads.  Clearly they were farming towns as we met a great many trucks laden with produce going to them and coming back empty to the fields again.

Finally, we reached Sehlem.  Our group descended on one of the local markets and loaded up on fruits and vegetables for our meal tonight.  We were also allowed one beer apiece so we made the best of it by choosing a nice, dark, ale brewed just down the road.  There was a small park in the middle of town where we filled our water bottles and rested for a bit.

Prodded again by spitting rain showers, we mounted up for our climb through the wooded hills to our camp spot which was located about halfway up the hill.  This time, the entire hillside was covered with old-growth timber and darkened our way yet again.

The first bit wasn’t too bad and provided a little levity into a dreary day.  A sign pointed up a narrow valley to the town of Heckenmünster.  We all started to laugh at an incorrect translation of “Heck Monster”.  The rain was beginning to warp our brains.

About halfway up the next slope, we were met by our caravan of vans and cars at the junction of our road and a dirt track.  The turnoff was gravel so it wasn’t muddy, but it was wet and slippery.  One of us slid sideways and almost crashed into a tree so we decided that care was dictated here and walked the rest of the way to camp.

Our logistics crew had picked a very nice spot for us to camp, right on the edge of a sea of grass which led downwards to a small stream which crashed its way noisily downhill over a series of waterfalls and boulder strewn stretches.  At our camp we could hear it, but down in the background so it wasn’t intrusive.  Unpacking and setting up our tents occupied us for a while and preparing for dinner was underway soon.  A couple of us, including myself, were drafted into slicing and dicing vegetables for the stew pot while two of the girls cut strips of beef began dropping them into the pot also.  Apples were cored, pears sliced, and fresh strawberries would be our desert.

Dinner was superb tonight and, as we were cleaning up, the skies opened and torrents of rain fell on us.  The cook area tent fly wasn’t up to the task of keeping the rain off and collapsed right into the middle of the camp table.  Things got a little soggy, but the plates had to be washed anyway and this turned out to be the fasted way to get the job done.

Once washed, with no hope of drying them, we drifted off to do some exploring.  Sharon, Paul, Virginia and I went to the top of the grassy slope to see what we could see.  In the process of leaning over a large log, Paul slipped and fell across it.  When he landed on his stomach, face downhill, he didn’t stop.  With increasing speed, he slid like a toboggan down the grass and fetched up on a muddy bank of the stream.

He stood, arms waving, and laughing like a hyena, said that he was fine.  It was the best ride he’d had in a long time.  I figured that I couldn’t get any wetter and leapt down the hill feet first on my butt.  Virginia and Sharon were right behind me shrieking with joy at the ride.  I slipped sideways and made one complete loop only to land back on my bottom for the rest of the ride.  When I hit the mud feet first, I showered it all over Paul who was not wise enough to have moved away from the muddy spot.

Virginia crashed into me, tumbled right over my shoulders, and planted herself on her back in the middle of a muddy puddle, gasping for breath.  Sharon, trying to slow herself, twisted enough to come into the puddle at an angle and stop dead when she hit it.  This was accomplished by shooting a huge bow wave of muddy water over all of us.

We were laughing so hard we could hardly stand.  I don’t know who really started it, only that I remember being slapped in the back with a huge mudball by someone (I suspected Virginia, but she only looked at me wide-eyed with innocence).  The fight was on.  By the time several others from camp had joined us we all looked like chocolate soldiers.

Dave had the idea first of simply splashing into the creek to wash off – and did so.  If this was a cartoon, he would have levitated up until he was tiptoeing across the surface while voicing claims that the water was COLD.  This particular stream had, as it’s source, a very deep spring about halfway up the mountain.  It never had the benefits of the sun warming it because it was way too swift.  By the time it got to where we were, it was still very cold.

We stripped off as much clothing as we dared and dunked them in the water to clean them off.  This was not a co-ed bath however.  The girls had found a large bunch of bushes to go behind and used them as a shield while they cleaned off.  Yeah, we peeked.

Finding a path leading back up to the camp was difficult as the grass was much taller down here on the bottom of the hill but we managed it.  We arrived, huffing and puffing, back in camp to the stern eyes of the chaperones who asked us just what the heel we’d been up to.  We couldn’t lie so we told them that an avalanche had swept us up and buried us.  We were all okay though and no broken bones.  They just rolled their eyes.

The rain continued most of the night.  Lightning flashed and thunder rolled across the valley.  We were beginning to wonder if the Heck Monster actually was stomping around the hills at night.  This led to a chain of ghost stories as we lay in our tents facing each other in a circle.  One of us would start it off and reach a climax only to pass it to the next person who added their own embellishments.  By the time it got back to the original storyteller the entire plot had changed.  This is a great way to pass the time.

One by one we dropped off to sleep as best as we could in our soggy tents.  It was not a fun time.


The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (4)

June 3, 2010

The next morning dawned later than normal.  Overnight, clouds had moved in and a chill had settled on the campsite.  I noticed it around four in the morning and simply piled on another blanket.  Several others did the same.  Hot coffee was the order of the day when breakfasts were being built.

One by one our tour members struggled out of their warm bags and into the chill air.  Up on top of the mountain on either side it wouldn’t be so bad, but down here in the river valley it was cold.  We sat on logs around a larger than normal fire and poured hot drinks down our throats.  Once warmed, the rest of breakfast didn’t seem so grim.

I felt refreshed after several smallish butter rolls and a large Danish.  The sugar wound its way through my system and got me up and moving.  My tent mate and I tore down our tent, folded it, and lashed it to my pannier.  He took the poles and stakes in his.  Others did pretty much the same but nobody moved very fast.

Today we were to travel down the north side of the river, curve around a huge bend, and cross using a ferry system.  Originally, we were to spend the night in an inn at the center of Mühlheim, but there had been a mix up in reservations and ours didn’t exist.  We were now booked into a tiny little Gasthaus in Maring; just across the river.

With stiff limbs and our breath condensing in front of us we puffed off like a whole brace of steam engines.  Slowly we warmed up as we pedaled along the trail on the river bank.  Talk was desultory and carried on in subdued tones.

We passed the little Bierstube the four of us had visited the previous evening and waved to the owner and his wife as they swept the porch and steps of the building.  They paused to watch us stream by.  Just minutes later, the first touch of sun reached the valley floor and put animation into our attitudes.

Conversations began to pick up a little more volume, and people would speed up or slow down to join with friends instead of poking along with their eyes straight ahead.  A wonderful thing, the sun.  It warmed one not only physically, but emotionally.

Off to our left were vast vineyards staggering their way up the slope.  Numerous threads of dirt roads connected them with switchbacks appearing everywhere.  Even this early, trucks were laboring up the slope with workers who kept the vines in top shape.  Directly ahead we could see a fairly large valley leading off to the north.  When we reached it, in the middle of the small village across the river from Bernkastel-Kues, a sign told us the road lead up to Monzelfeld.  A quick look at our topographical map and we could see that this town was almost three hundred and ten meters higher than us (1016 feet).  Nobody even mentioned wanting to take a side trip.

The road up the canyon divided the village and swept over the river to the larger town of Bernkastel-Kues.  Small homes dotted the hillside in between plots of pine trees all the way to the crest of the hill.  When we stopped to take some pictures, Virginia came over to me, put her arm around my waist, and leaned close.  She said it was a beautiful place and we’d have to drive over here some day and go church hunting.  She was quite a lover of churches – all types and denominations.  I agreed that the trip would be nice indeed.  With time for no more than a peck on the cheek, we mounted up and went on down the street.

Once past the town, our road plunged into a deep green tunnel of mixed trees.  Some pine, but primarily larch and maple dominated overhead.  Traffic had picked up somewhat.  Huge, stinky, diesel busses blatted past us on their way to town filled with morning commuters.  We pulled into the trees and rested until most of them had passed us for the day.  It was hard to take a breath when the air was filled with fumes.

It was during one of these rests that one of our group was sitting right next to his bike when the tire gave out with a bang.  He rose up about two feet from a sitting position and landed about five feet away with a very startled look on his face.  He’d had no indication of any trouble before the moment it popped.  We helped him remove the wheel, pull the tire off and patch the tube.  Fortunately, it was the front wheel and easily changed.  He, and everyone around the bike at the time, were charged with a little adrenaline.

Lunchtime came and we found a very nice picnic area just outside the town of Andel.  An enterprising vendor or two had set up their pushcarts on the grass and were minting money selling bratwurst and big, salty, pretzels with loads of hot mustard.  All thoughts of field rations left us as the smell hit us from completely across the green.  We parked our bikes and walked en-masse to the carts for our fuel.  We noticed that the chaperones were between us and the guy selling beer in the normal bottles with wire and rubber-covered ceramic snap-caps.  This was the kind that let you take a swallow or two and reseal the bottle to keep it from going flat.  American beer brewers could take a page from the Germans here.  Anyway, we didn’t, actually, weren’t allowed to approach the vendors.  I didn’t try because I still had half a bottle of wine in my pannier – so there!

On our approach to the town of Mühlheim we passed through vast fields of produce.  We identified sugar beets, lettuce, beans, and potatoes.  Most of the fields were populated with people whacking at weeds, setting up large sprinklers, or generally wandering around so we didn’t try anything.

We arrived at the ferry landing just in time to see the churning at the stern signifying its return to the other side.  A posted schedule said the next run was in an hour, but according to the board, it was supposed to arrive on this side at the current time.  Nobody appeared to be around to ask about the discrepancy so we just decided to sit and wait.  Some of us walked a little ways into town and took pictures or shopped.

Five of us managed to slip the chaperones and duck into a dark cellar bar.  Refreshed with a quick Schnapps, we went back to the landing.  Mints were passed around before we got there.

About half an hour later we heard the faint toot of the ferry’s horn and three minutes later it moved away from the dock and started back to us.  Nosing carefully upstream, the driver balanced thrust against current to put himself right at the ramp on our side.  Now we knew why the ramp was at an angle to the river.

There was room for six cars and lots of bicycles.  Three more touring groups had joined us while we were waiting.  One of them was French, but they seemed to stay away from the rest of us for some reason.  The other two were German and they moved freely amongst us and asked loads of questions about our rides.  We took a lot of pictures of each other and the riverine traffic as we slowly motored our way across the river.  At this point, it was about a half-mile wide and the current was fairly slow.

When we got to the other side, they didn’t lower the pedestrian gate until all the vehicles were off the ferry.  I guess this was a safety move so that the sudden appearance of many bicyclists wouldn’t scare the drivers; or something like that.  Anyway, once the gate was us, we trooped off and headed for a lemonade stand.

Now, for all of you who are keeping track of our little jaunt, we have just completed a twist in the river which started with us in the campground on the north side of the river.  We cruised down that bank until we were waiting for the ferry on the south side of the river to go back to the north side.  A neat trick.  It was accomplished because the river made a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn.  Also, while I am explaining that one, I might add that Google Earth now shows nothing of both ferry landings except for what appears to be a boat ramp on the south side and a gravel spot which could have held the north ferry slip.  A small boat yard appears there now.  A very nice bridge spans the river here now.

Refreshed by a tart and zesty lemonade, we mounted up and started along the road that led to Maring.  We picked up some speed once we left the river because we passed along the city sewage plant and the wind was coming off the settling tanks.  Not a very nice smell.

We went through Maring and crossed a small stream.  Our inn was immediately across the stream and looked wonderful.  After checking in and getting our room assignments, we went out and found a couple of very nice nature trails that led along the stream.  Since another of our group had given up (muscle cramps that wouldn’t go away) there were only five guys and four girls left; plus, of course, the two chaperones.  The other two chaperones were back on the base lining up our next campground supplies.

Virginia and I eluded the chaperone (more easily done now that there were only two of them) and left to wander the trails along the stream bank.  Stone and log benched were places at strategic places where one could contemplate nature, listed to bird calls, or just plain neck.  We chose the last one.

We couldn’t get too heavily involved because the ground cover was pretty sparse, but it was enough to get me fired up a little.  And that was as far as I got too because another couple walked along the path and sat at the bench about fifty feet away.  They weren’t with our group so that inhibited Virginia a little; which, of course, inhibited the hell out of me, darn it.

Daylight began fading soon and we reluctantly started back.  Dinner consisted of a very nice veal dish, with the inevitable potatoes and/or noodles.  The salad was one of the best ones I’ve ever eaten and when I asked about it, I was told that the components came from their very own garden.  I asked for, and got, a second helping.  We were also allowed one small beer (hooray!) to help wash it down.

After dinner, most of us gravitated to the large room set up with several stuffed couches and chairs arranged as conversation centers.  I sat in a chair that was big enough for two.  Virginia proved that by sliding down and lying across my lap with her feet hanging over one arm, her shoulders resting on the other, and her head on my shoulder.  It was our favorite sitting position as we could talk in low tones and nobody could hear us.

Once again the chaperones were being sharp-eyed so we kept it decent even though both of us were getting up a good head of steam.  We murmured to each other for an hour until Virginia suddenly yawned.  It was one of those yawns that no power on earth can stop.  She giggled, apologized, and then waited.  Sure enough, she’d made me start yawning.  We gave up and went our separate ways to bed.  It took me a while to get to sleep.


The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (3)

May 25, 2010

Dawn broke with a crash – literally.  A few of the guys were outside playing a pick-up game of soccer in the back yard and one of them kicked the ball a little off center and sent it through the window in our dorm.  There is nothing like being awakened by the crash of glass, and the screaming of girls (and, to be completely honest, some of the guys; not me, of course).  Nobody would fess up so we all chipped in to pay for the window.

Since we all woke up at the same time, there was a decided crush to get into the WC and take care of business.  Once that was done it was time for breakfast.  No huge breakfasts this time as all that was offered was small broetchen, various jams and jellies, and pieces of bacon.  Strong coffee was also the norm.  What you didn’t drink you could lube your chain with.  If they didn’t use very heavily plated spoons, they’d melt.

Today we had a fairly easy day planned.  We were going from Wittlich to Mühlheim.  Well, not entirely all the way to Mühlheim but to a small camping ground right on a peninsula on the bank of the Mosel River.  It was pretty much downhill all the way.  Something we could definitely use right about now as our muscles got used to all the activity.

Since there was no real hurry because we had only eight or ten miles to go, we took the time to tune our bikes up a little.  They’d taken a pretty good beating in the muddy field and needed to be cleaned and oiled somewhat.  We brought out the big toolkit from the station wagon and set to work.

We gathered a few spectators from among the other transients staying at the hostel.  Most of them had never seen the type of bikes we had as most German bicycles had at the most two gears.  Ours were set up as touring bikes and as such had three gears in two ranges for a total of six.  It made climbing hills much easier.  We showed off the gearing system and let some of the kids ride the bikes to see how they liked them.  One fellow offered the equivalent of almost a hundred dollars for Jim’s bike.  It wasn’t for sale.

A word here on the bikes themselves.  They were called English Touring Bikes and had narrow tires with tubes in them.  The braking systems were a right and left-handlebar caliper that caused a clamp to ride on the rim of the front and back wheels.  Very similar to bikes nowadays, but definitely not what you would call ‘mountain-style’.  They were very susceptible to punctures from stones and other sharp objects; plus the little rubber stoppers were prone to jumping out at the most inopportune moments.

Finally we loaded up our panniers and straggled our way in double file down the road.  The first section was pretty much on the level.  We rode past fields of grain, potatoes, sugar beets, and corn (nope, we didn’t stop this time).  We skirted Wengerohr and Platten then started down a very long canyon that would eventually bring us to the Mosel River.

On one side was heavy forestation and the other, across huge fields of grass we could see fledgling vineyards.  Some of the finest German wines come from the Mosel River (in my opinion anyway) and in ten or fifteen years these small vineyards would be producing great vintages.  For now, however, they were just very junior vines.

Vineyards are placed on the north side of the valley and the river so that they faced south and absorbed as much sun as they could.  If we thought these small vineyards were expansive, we really got a surprise when we entered the Mosel valley itself.  Finally, as we swung around a huge curve the entire river valley opened up to us.  It was a great sight.  We stopped for a snack and took loads of pictures.

After one final curve we approached a huge traffic circle.  We whirled around it and exited on the road that led to a very old bridge over the river.  Zeltingen was on the other side.  This bridge, as well as most of the Mosel River bridges, had been heavily damaged during the war.  It still had some pockmarks and shrapnel damage.  It was very hard to imagine what conditions were like back only twelve years earlier.  It took us twenty minutes to cross as we kept taking pictures of boats as they navigated up and down the river.  The girls called and waved to the crewmembers and they waved.  Several captains tooted their horns at us.

A very small café that resided right on the bank of the river seemed a great place to stop for lunch.  The two very pretty servers seemed a bit apprehensive as a load of Americans began to fill the small dining room, but warmed up very fast when they realized most of us spoke German well enough to discuss what would be best for lunch.  Soon, they were bustling to and from the kitchen, setting down plates and bringing copious amounts of lemonade.  The girls both enjoyed having their pictures taken with some of our group – mostly guys.  Virginia clamped her fingers on my knee and kept them there virtually all during lunch.

We settled up our bill, tipped the servers, and filled our water bottles with more of the delicious lemonade.  Not too far down the river road, we saw what appeared to be a dam.  As we got closer we could see it stretching all the way across the river.  We got to wondering how boats could get past it until we realized that there was a small barge sitting on what appeared to be dry land on the opposite bank.  Using zoom lenses, I could see that there was a lock system.  If we had stayed on the south bank we would have ridden directly past it.  On this bank, we could barely see it.

We watched as the barge cleared the lock and maneuvered around an oncoming flatboat pushing two other small barges upstream.  It was a tight fit, but they made it through also.  We walked out as far as we could on the dam and took some more pictures.  Finally, we started out again for our camp ground.

We pedaled slowly down the pathway next to the river.  No cars to worry about so we took our time and bunched up.  Off in the distance we could see a small finger of land that extended towards us and enclosed a little bit of water.  As we got closer we could see several tents and small camper vehicles.  That must be our spot.  We passed it, crossed towards the river even more, and rode back to the campground.

It was a pay-by-the-day campground and collected in advance.  We were assigned adjoining slots and began setting up our tents.  While we were doing that, the two vehicles that kept pace with us arrived and unloaded the cooking items.  Since it was early afternoon we were in no rush to fix anything yet, so we all just scattered and walked around.

Virginia, Cleo, Roger and I went back towards where the peninsula left the north bank.  We did it with enough stealth that none of the chaperones saw us leave.  Roger and I had noticed a small Gasthaus up the road opposite the one we had gone down to the camp.  That was our destination.

They had a very nice little six-table vine covered garden area set up as a Biergarten.  What does one order in a Biergarten?  Bier, of course.  We sat and relaxed to the sound of a fake water wheel slowly turning in the current of the river.  It wasn’t connected to anything so we figured it was decorative.  It was apparently a slow day so the proprietor joined us and asked, in halting English, if we were on tour.

I answered in German to his visible relief that we were camping down the road with a few more of us.  We talked of this and that for almost an hour.  He seemed very pleased that we had stopped and kept bringing us snack foods to try.  We did, of course, only to be polite.  Cleo and Roger excused themselves and wandered down one of the paths through the garden.

Suddenly, a huge outcry of honking geese and shouting guy and girl began behind some bushes.  The proprietor jumped up and shouted to Cleo and Roger.

“Nein.  Nein.  Kümmern Sie sich nicht die Gänse.  Sie werden angreifen!”  (No.  No.  Don’t bother the geese.  They will attack!)  “Können sie nicht lessen Deutsch?”  (Can’t they read German?)  He asked me.

I turned to look where he was pointing and, sure enough, there was a white sign with red lettering warning everyone not to mess with the geese as they would get nasty.  I told him I guess they didn’t notice it.  And, as an afterthought I offered to write the warning out in English for him.  He grinned hugely and brought a piece of paper and a pen for me.  I wrote an appropriate warning that added somewhat to the terse German warning by way of telling parents to keep an eye on their kids.  When I explained my addition, he laughed and said he’d have to add that to his sign also.

After a very pleasant afternoon the four of us reluctantly readied ourselves to leave the little bistro and walk back to the campground.  The owner pressed a bottle of wine into Virginia’s hands and winked at the two of us.

“You have for later,” he explained.  I thanked him profusely and we bowed our way out.  It was a very good vintage.

Back at camp, we smuggled the bottle into my tent and went back to help with dinner.  We brought out the ears of corn we had liberated from the cornfield, dropped them into a huge pot, and salted the water.  One woman from the neighboring camp introduced herself, in French, and asked what we were doing to the corn.  Virginia was better at French that I was (which is to say she wouldn’t get her face slapped) so she explained as best as she could that we were boiling it to eat.  The woman looked a little askance at us and pressed for more details.

Virginia told her that Americans are what we called ‘corn on the cob’ with lots of butter and salt.  While she was talking, she fished out an ear and poured melted butter and dashed it with salt.  With a flourish, she handed it to the woman.  She took a tentative bite, took several more, and then began to run her teeth down row after row of corn kernels.  Finally, with butter dripping from her chin she pronounced that it was an amazing thing to do with corn.  I’ve explained before that most Europeans didn’t do anything with corn except to feed their pigs and barnyard fowl.  I guess nobody had thought of boiling it.  She shyly accepted two more ears, with butter and salt, for her husband and son.  She left calling their names and encouraging them to try this new food.

Dinner was wonderful.  Fresh bread that our motorized crew had bought in town, lots of corn and butter, plenty of grilled pork chops, and greens loaded down our tables.  We chattered all through dinner, washed up, and wandered back out from the dining fly – mostly two by two.  In some cases, four by four.  The chaperones called to us not to stay out too late and then settled down by one of the fires to have a beer or two.

Virginia and I wrapped our gift bottle of wine in her sweater and went down to the riverbank.  As darkness fell completely, we lay back and watched the river traffic as they muscled their way upstream or drifted down.  Cheery little toots of horns as they passed sounded very friendly.  Like the Dutch, most of them had dogs aboard who barked as the vessels passed each other.  They were used when fog obscured the river.  The dogs would alert a captain of an approaching boat that he may not see.

I opened the wine and poured into our plastic cups.  She toasted me; we clicked rims, and sipped.  It was definitely a good vintage.  She rested her head back on my arm and snuggled in close.  We talked of pretty much anything we thought of.  We had really nothing we wouldn’t discuss so we never lacked for conversation.  I quoted some poetry, which she loved me to do, and we just sat and watched the stars come out.

With the bottle half empty now, and the fire at the chaperone’s camp gone low, we figured it was time to go back to our (separate, darn it) tents.  Tomorrow we would be taking a ferry back across the river and climbing up and out of the valley.


The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (1)

May 13, 2010

One fine spring day, just after school let out, a bunch of us were hanging around the Teen Club wondering what to do with ourselves.  All sorts of schemes were offered and shot down until the subject of a bike trip surfaced.  Nowadays, the mention of a bike trip gives visions of snarly Harleys and happy Hondas, but to us in the mid-1950’s it simply meant a bicycle trip.

We kicked the idea around and the more we talked about it the better it sounded.  We dragged out maps and planned a route that would take us generally east towards the Mosel River.  To get there we would have to navigate the Kyll River and a couple of other minor streams.  In Germany, most roads would approach a river at almost a right angle, sweep down one bank, cross the river, and run back up the opposite side to continue onwards in the original direction.  When you are on a bike, the trip down is a real treat, but the trip back up can be very difficult.  Virginia and I found that out previously in our little adventure which I chronicled here: (

We were pretty far along in the planning when one of the girls spoke up and asked if they were invited also.  We replied that of course they were.  This sparked another debate which swirled around parental permission based on how many chaperones we’d have.  Chaperones – we don’t need no steenkin’ chaperones.  Final answer: Oh, Yes You Do Buster!

Now we really were debating about who we would ask for this honor.  A priority list was made up of persons we thought might be able to make the trip, followed by persons who had a large enough vehicle to be able to hold one or more bicycles if necessary, and finally, those that would just ‘go along for the ride’ in those vehicles.  We had thirteen names at the end.  Two of us were designated to ask everyone on the list if they would be willing to chaperone our touring group.

When the dust settled, we had four who would attempt the trip on their own bicycles, and three who were willing to drive their cars from one stopping point to the next carrying our personal gear.  A pretty fair division of labor and which also gave us seven adults in every place we stopped.  Since two of our stops were to be camping grounds we definitely needed the two station wagons and the one VW camper for cooking.

When the dust settled and we were down to actually making the reservations at the inns we were planning to stay at there were thirteen teens and three chaperones on bicycles.  The rest would drive out and meet us at our various stops.  One person, who drove a station wagon, carried a toolkit, spare inner tubes and a first aid kit that the base hospital and put together for us.  Hopefully, we wouldn’t need it, but one never knows.

Our trip was to cover a total of about a hundred twenty kilometers (roughly 75 miles) and we planned on doing it in seven days.  Granted, this is only around eleven miles a day, but we were in no hurry at all and, most importantly, there were lots of hills we would have to walk up.  The four inns we wanted to stop at were located in Binsfeld, Wittlich, Mühlheim and Niersbach.  The other three nights we would just camp out in a field beside the road.

I had two cameras; one personal and one from the PAO (Public Affairs Office) to make a visual journal of our trip.  Virginia consented to carry the extra film I would need.  Mine was black and white but the PAO camera would use color.  This way, I could develop my own pictures.  We were ready for the trip to begin.

In the week that followed our finalization of plans everyone was busily getting their bikes ready for the trip.  Questionable tires were replaced and the bikes themselves tuned, oiled, and greased.  I added a nice rear fender pannier to hold incidentals (and my cameras) so I wouldn’t have it hanging around my neck all the time.

In the last week of June we headed out from the parking lot in front of the school and made our way to the main gate.  A lot of kids on their bicycles rode along with us to the gate, but peeled off and went home as we passed through them.

For those of you who have never been in Europe – or at least back in the mid fifties – the roads in any town at that time were mostly cobblestones.  Lanes set aside for bicycles (of which there were literally hundreds on the road at any given time during the day) existed and were normally paved with asphalt.  This was in town.  Outside town you were on your own along roads that were pretty narrow.  Not so narrow that you were in constant danger of getting hit but narrow enough.   Two busses could pass each other, but that would leave little room for a bike.  Everyone riding had either a rear view mirror mounted on their handlebars, or wore a cap with a stem-mounted mirror on it.  Bike riders were so very common, especially in the summer, that drivers would take special care when on the road.

We descended the rather steep road down the hill from the base and entered the town of Bitburg.  Our immediate goal was to cruise down the hillside, run through Albach and cross the Kyll River.  Virginia and I pedaled side by side in the middle of a chain of bikers riding no more than two abreast.  There was a nice bike and walking trail running next to the road that made it much easier because we didn’t have to keep looking for vehicles coming up behind us.  This is the same route Virginia and I took to get to our friends house over in Spangdahlem.

We coasted all the way down to the bridge, stopped for a moment to tamp down objects that had shaken loose, and to take some pictures.  Ahead of us was a rather long climb but much more gentle than the hill we had just come down.  The first half of the upward climb we pedaled, but about halfway up we all dismounted and walked.  No reason to tire ourselves out struggling up a hill.

We reached the plateau on top and skirted the town of Metterich and a huge field of plowed ground.  It would have been shorter to go directly across, but we could find no path through the field.  And, being freshly plowed, the farmer would, no doubt, take a dim view of us crossing it.  Once around the field, the road leveled off and pedaling became much easier and allowed us to use higher gears.

In Dudeldorf we paused at the town fountain to renew the wet cloths around our necks and generally rest a moment.  Some German school kids stopped and we chatted for a while with them.  They tried our their textbook English and we spoke our various forms of German – some good, some not so good.  A few pictures were taken of us standing in front of the fountain and such.  Mounting our bikes, we strung out along the road towards another hill down to a small creek.  This one was much easier as we didn’t have to walk at all.

Passing over the brim of the hill on the way up, Spangdahlem Air Base lay before us.  We debated going on base for something to eat and decided we couldn’t take the time to do so.  We passed the turn off for the gate and took the road that curved around the business end of the runway.  As we were just passing the runway overrun, a flight of two F-100’s took off right overhead.  I had never realized just now noisy they were until they were only about two hundred feet above me on full afterburner.  We all took to shouting at one another for five minutes after that until our ears opened up again.

The route through Binsfeld was pretty narrow because the old buildings were sitting with their front doors almost right on the edge of the road.  We slipped into a single file until we got to the center of town.  We stopped when we reached the inn where we were to spend the first night.  It was located off the main street by quite a bit and took us two false tries down side roads to find it.

It was a wonderful old building set next to, or actually a part of, a milling operation for wheat and other grains.  There was a huge garden behind it with rose arbors, patches of colored flowers all around and walkways between them.  To one side was a Biergarten, which the chaperones told us was off limits because they, um, sold beer.  Rats!

Most of us were a little sore from our first day’s travel, but managed to totter around the village and sightsee.  Virginia and I plus two other couples went out together and sought a shop where we could buy some thin gloves.  I had worn a blister on the palm of my hand and didn’t want to make it worse and two others were ready to form one.  One of the others found what we were looking for, but I had to translate for them as they didn’t have a lot of German.  The woman behind the counter thought I was a guide for the Americans and was a bit surprised when she found I was one of ‘them’.

We all met back in the café across the street from the inn and had dinner.  Following a great meal, we trooped over to the inn and sorted ourselves into our various rooms; boys with boys and girls with girls.  We had already sworn amongst ourselves that no hanky and/or panky would be undertaken by anyone – male or female.  This was, after all, going to be a great trip and we just didn’t need any drama in our backpacks.

As I lay down that evening, I wondered just how lucky I was to be sharing a room with two guys that thought belching was a really hilarious pastime.  Amid the blerts, braaps, and impressive beeeeooooops, I finally got to sleep.


Stage play and a bike trip

June 8, 2009

A way back I promised more on scouting.  The American Boy Scouts organization on the base was a good thing.  It helped most of us towards understanding others around our immediate area and how to relate to the surrounding community.  We never really got to do much of anything off base like camping or other outdoor activities.  Most parents were wary of giving permission for their kids to leave the base.  Who knew, maybe there were bands of German perverts ready to pounce on American kids.

I still went to local meetings but when Mr. Espana introduced me and a few others to the group of local German Boy Scouts I began to miss meetings.  The group downtown was a very friendly lot.  They held dances, took day trips, did lots of bicycling and other healthy activities.

One evening we visited a local theatre for a stage play.  Since the American boys had all studied German under the expert tutelage of Mr. Espana we comfortably enjoyed the comedy.  Afterward, there was a reception for everyone so they could meet the actors.  It turned out that almost all of them were members of the scouting crowd.  We were greeted as close friends and we all toasted each other and got a little silly on Apfelsaft.  I had discovered that if you drink enough of the cider its slight alcoholic content will begin to affect you.  German labeling laws were quite a bit different than American ones I’m happy to say.

Our group of Americans was introduced to three very attractive females at the reception:  Anna, Model, and Kitzie.  I made the mistake of calling Model with the emphasis on the first syllable and she quietly corrected me by pronouncing it heavy on the second syllable as in mo-Del.  I apologized and she passed it off with a wave of her hand.  They were sort of assigned by the leader as our guides.  This is a very platonic assignment (which is the closest word) we were advised by Mr. Espana.  It meant simply that they were there to keep us clumsy Americans from making any socially unacceptable mistakes.  It was definitely NOT meant to make us look like bumpkins – but to allow us to be assimilated into the group easily.

I had already seen first hand how some of us kids behaved on road trips with a school group.  Most of us behaved nicely, but there were a lot that just didn’t care how they were being judged by the people they came into contact with.  Disgusting talk, loud, boorish attempts at forcing their will on others, displays of wealth, and just generally embarrassing behavior simply didn’t fit into my game plan.  I wanted to be friends, not the dominant male of the group.

This was only ten years after the end of the war and feelings towards (or against) we Americans ran high in either direction.  Lots of Germans still saw us as their conquerors, not friends.  I was determined to dispel that feeling as best as I could.  Kitzie sort of attached herself to me.  I was always on my best behavior around her and always acted with the utmost decorum.  I wanted to be able to introduce her to Virginia and not have them start a knife fighting rumble.

Just before our first bicycling trip, I bought a brand new bike.  It was a new kind (for me) called an English Racer and had three gears.  It also had brakes on the handlebars instead of stopping by back-pedaling.  This caused a few bumps and bruises until I learned to hit the back brake first before the front one.  I also dropped painfully more than once to the center bar by forgetting where the brakes were entirely and backpedaling.  The pedals don’t stop you that way – they just free wheel backwards.  If you aren’t expecting that, you slip down fast and make contact.  Ouch!

The trip was going to cover almost a hundred and twenty kilometers (around 75 miles).  We would visit three major villages and return back where we started.  Our route was down one bank of the Mosel River and back on the other side.  The starting point was Trier.

We initially started as one big gaggle, but eventually strung out into smaller groups.  I ended up with a group of about ten with me being the only American.  We laughed and chatted our way downriver.  My fellow travelers were eager to try out their school English on me.  They already knew I could speak German, so they taught me some of the local alterations for some words.  This, in later times, would come back to haunt me in a way that approaches the bizarre.  My speech, I was told, was called Moselle Franconian with bits of Luxemburgish thrown in.  I had never given thought that there might be variations across Germany until then.

I compared their language variations to the many variations in American speech patterns.  Several of them who spoke very decent English could hardly understand my depiction of a Deep South accent.  They were amazed when I told them that there were hundreds of variations in American speech.  None of them had ever considered just how large the US was.  When I compared our recent bus trip to Berlin, which took us just over seven hours, to driving across the whole US which could take up to six, perhaps seven days or so, they were stunned.  The rough distance between the two towns is around three hundred thirty miles.  Do that ten times and you could cross the US.

At night, we would end up at an inn, usually attached or next to a nice restaurant.  A lot of good German beer was passed around (I only allowed myself one liter thereof) which made things get merry in a big hurry.  I learned several good drinking songs in the process.  Kitzie, who had decided that she wanted to stay near me, was a willing companion in swinging our mugs and whooping it up with the other singers.  I am sure that if I asked her to join me in my room she would have done so, but I, at that time, was firmly attached to Virginia.  Kitzie seemed to understand.

I sure wish society would come up with some method of signaling to both males and females that a given boy or girl is already taken; something that would apply before a wedding ring.  Us teens had developed the concept of Going Steady.  This was usually consummated by the guy giving his girl a ring of some type which was usually hung around the neck.  If near parents, it would be quickly tucked into a bra.  Once again, the boy had nothing to show for his fidelity to one girl; other than stamping “Property of _________” on a guy’s head, that is.

Women have their engagement rings, but men have nothing like that other than a sense of honor – well, some of us do anyway.  Kitzie and I would have been great together I think but I had given my ring, and my heart, to Virginia.

As fall approached, more thought was given towards indoor activities.  School dances were more plentiful as well as other activities in the Teen Club.  Halloween gave us kids loads of reasons for small, local parties usually held in someone’s quarters.  I hosted a few at my house simply because our quarters consisted of two complete sets of quarters.  My dad, by now, had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and rated larger quarters.  We had moved from our cramped housing on the second floor (no elevators) into ground-floor quarters that took over the whole center section of the building.  We had two of everything and six bedrooms with this arrangement.

The entire housing area consisted of fifty, four story buildings; each with three stairwells.  The apartments were arranged two to a floor with varying amounts of bedrooms.  The first stairwell held all the A and B apartments, the second C and D, with third hosting the E and F apartments.  Thus, to find any given person’s house all you had to know was what building, what stairwell, which side of the landing, and what floor.  A very simple plan: our house was in 49-CD-1.  This meant the center stairwell, both apartments on the ground floor.  You can imagine the consternation when someone would ring the bell on the C apartment, carry on their business and move to the D apartment and have the same person to come to the door.

In almost every case, Virginia and I would host the party jointly.  We had accumulated about eight or nine couples that formed the core of our social circle and enjoyed each others company.  One special night was reserved by us and three other couples for Thanksgiving.  During the summer my mom as well as our maid had been giving me cooking lessons.  I got rather good at it, but Virginia was a master at it.  We prepared a great deal of food for our very own super-formal dinner.

My parents agreed not to come any further than the divider door between apartments so we could have some privacy for our gala event.  My bedroom and my younger sister’s room were in the half we were to use so I prevailed on her to spend the evening at a friend’s house.

Virginia and I decorated the living room with all sorts of Thanksgiving items we had found downtown that closely matched those found everywhere in the U.S.  Lots of bundled grasses, leaves, and other harvest vegetables were arranged about the room.  We had so much fun preparing for the dinner that we almost fooled ourselves that we were a happily married couple.  It certainly was nice to fantasize about it anyway.  An arm around her waist, or a quick peck on the lips from her was all we allowed in the kitchen.

Two of the couples I will have more on later: Carol and Benny; Shirley and Art.  The last couple was Roger and Cleo.  Cleo was a soft-spoken girl that had taken up nursing as an aide over in the base hospital.  She had met Roger while he was sorting mail in the hospital mail room.  They had seen each other, of course, at school but each never knew the other worked at the hospital until they met one day in the lunchroom.  Romance soon followed as they became members of the Photo Club along with the rest of us.

Our dinner was fantastic.  We had everything from a soup course to a chocolate torte cake with raspberry sauce for desert.  It took us almost two hours for dinner and afterward we adjourned to the living room for coffee and dancing.  Lights dimmed low and went out except for a couple over the record player as we settled down and just talked as we sipped.

Shirley, Art, Benny, and Carol challenged the rest of us to a game of Charades – which we won handily (no “Brazil” this time).  Once that was over we just settled down into chairs and talked again.  All of us had come from a service background so we had loads of things to talk about.  Shirley’s dad had been stationed at Wheelus Air Base in Libya and we all listened as she described the incredible shopping and photo opportunities that abounded there.  This was Art’s father’s first posting outside the States so he regaled us with stories of his exploits in Los Angeles and Hollywood.  He even claimed to have run across Gary Cooper once.

The time to break up the party came sooner than we wanted, but we all head to be in school the next day so everyone helped clean up and, two by two, departed.  Virginia and I went back into the living room and sat on the sofa completely exhausted.  She dropped her head into my shoulder and whispered in my ear “come dance with me”.

I pulled us to our feet, rustled ‘our song’ from the pile of records and began slow dancing.  During the course of the song, our lips met and we simply stopped moving and held each other.  We ended the song with a double-tapped to our tongues and whispered our love for each other.

I helped her into her coat, donned mine, and we set out for her house across the housing area.  It had started snowing during our dinner party and was just beginning to stick to the ground.  Our tracks were the only ones in the snow as we walked hand in hand.  She was beautiful, the base was beautiful, and all was right with the world.  I swear there was music playing in the background.


Drinking and “Wake Up Little Susie”

May 25, 2009

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.