Friday, February 6, 2009

Rhine Wine on The Rhine: A Soldier's Story

I joined the U.S. Army in 1962, against the advice of friends and family, some who called my decision stupid. Having recently graduated with a Master's Degree in Art, I wanted to put my military obligation behind me (we had to register for the draft in those days and some close friends had actually been drafted into military service after some international skirmish, and the only way to get out of it was to have some kind of job critical to the security of the U.S., have a rich daddy who could keep you in college, or be married and have kids - no thanks). Plus, the Army promised to send me to Europe, if I enlisted for three years: "What the hell is three years, anyway?" I thought. America had just ended the Berlin crisis and was "in-between" wars. My decision proved to be a good one as it would allow me to travel Europe, and get an honorable discharge, just months before the Viet Nam firestorm erupted in 1965.

I was stationed in a tiny village in the heart of the Rhine Valley, Wackernheim (it wasn't even of the map!), about 3o miles north of beautiful Mainz, Germany, surrounded by farms and fields, about 3 miles from the Rhine River. On days off, I would walk to the river through humble villages with cobblestoned streets, and along the way buy a bottle of Rhine wine, some salami, cheese, a loaf of French style bread, and sit on the river bank, eat, sip and watch the traffic of boats chugging along that magnificent waterway, one hell of a step up from the muddy Tuoulumne River in Modesto!

Unforgetable were the river cruises, north on the river, sitting on the decks of river boats, with a full bar, a band playing, and sipping on excellent German beer or white wine, cradled by steep mountains on each side, ribbed with vineyards and skeletons of ancient castles. This was a Cinderella voyage for a po' Mexican boy from the central valley of California. More importantly, the two-plus years I spent there made the location a perfect jumping off point for trips to Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands to see incredible cathedrals, museums (The Rijks, The Prado, The Louvre, The Vatican) and the works of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Goya, El Greco, Michaelangelo, and Rubens), things I had only known from books and slides in my art history courses! The military gave ample 3-day passes, and 30 days a year leave. You could go to France in one day and train travel was cheap and exciting! To save money I would buy the cheapest ticket, and sometimes wind up sleeping in the aisles, using a backpack for a pillow. This was part of the Bohemian adventure. It had to be this way to be true.

The Germans themselves were generally hospitable to us American G.I.'s, though a few were openly hostile. They loved to party, and joining in on the arm-in-arm singing, swaying back and forth to the "UM-PA-PA" bands, and getting pasted with them in bars was an absolute joy for me. Beat the hell out of drinking with some of the horny jerks on the base, and listening to "Duke of Earl" repeated 25 times over on the juke box. The barmaids, 4 full mugs of beer on each hand, and a platter with a few more on their forearm, were not just an image on some postcard. It was not uncommon to have complete strangers kind of "adopt you" and buy drinks for you all afternoon! Great for cheapskates like me.
Especially memorable was Fasching, a German style Mardi Gras celebrated from Jan 31 - to February 5 each year. Wow, what a bash, a genuine "beer bust!" Snow and ice was still on the ground during Fasching, and I remember groups of revelers busting out of one bar, running down the icy streets to the next one, arm-in-arm, turning a corner only to have the stragglers on the end of the chain, pushed by the cetrifugal force, slide down the streets on their backsides. Many of the local villages, would each have their annual "wein fest", showcasing the new wine. One village on the Mosel River, a small tributary that branches off from the Rhine and heads into France, actually had a fountain squirting wine, rigged in the main square, and you could fill and refill you glass from spouts! In places, the banks of the Mosel are so steep, the people have to tie themselves to ropes from the tops of the hills to harvest the vineyards.

Germans are unique. In a half-empty theater, if you sat in the middle of a relatively empty row of seats, it was not uncommon for someone to enter, and sit in the seat right next to yours! Americans would never do this. In a restaurant, when I was alone, I was regularly invited to sit with a couple or a family to dine with them. One on such occasion, I was invited to sit with a mom, dad and a couple of their kids. No one spoke English; I knew only how to ask for "ein bier", "ein wein" or "Wo isst di toiletten?" Each child was served his own glass of wine, can you imagine that? Never happen in the U.S. After several moments of awkward silence, gestures and sign language I bumbled: "Ich bin ein "Mexican". The husband's face lit up: "Entonces hablas Espanol?" "Si!" Tu Tambien?" "Si!" The rest of the conversation proceeded in Spanish and he would then translate it into German for his family! Turns out the guy had worked in Spain for a number of years.
One of the most interesting persons I met was man who turned out to be a teacher at a local high school. He spoke flawless English and we got together a few times. Once, he invited me as a guest speaker to one of his classes. His students were intrigued to meet and speak to a real American. I told them all about San Franciso and the Golden Gate Bridge. I was sure they wouldn't be interested in hearing about Modesto or the 9th St. Bridge.
On one of our meetings, he told me a chilling story me I have never forgotten. During World War II, he had been a soldier in a German artillery unit, stationed in North Africa. They had dug themselves in, in the middle of the desert where they could see to the horizon in every direction. Having heard of the Americans, they had never actually engaged them. One day, they saw a large cloud of dust forming on the horizon. After some time, they realized some military unit was heading straight towards them. As they watched in astonishment, it slowly dawned on them that these were Americans, totally ignorant of the fact that directly in front of them lay their enemy in wait. Training their guns on the unsuspecting Americans, they waited until they got into range, fired, wiping out the entire American unit. As his comrades rummaged through the bodies, he reached into the pocket of one dead American soldier, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and smoked one. Ironically, it was a Lucky Strike.

In all, joing the U.S. Army had been a lucky strike for me too.

1 comment:

#167 Dad said...

Great stuff. Felt like I was right there with you. Did you ever make back to Europe?