Sunday, April 8, 2007

Winefest in Germany

Here's a little story about an event in my life you might find humorous. It was for me anyway, at least in retrospect.

During the fall of 1985, I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base near Landstuhl, Germany fulfilling a 24-month overseas commitment for the United States Air Force. It was a great time in my life and there was never a shortage of local events to check out or guys with whom to pal around during off-duty hours.

One such event was an annual autumn wine fest in a small town named Bad Durkheim about 40 miles from the base. The town was well known for its Neu (New) wine and people came from all over the country to attend the event. You could think of it as a mini Oktoberfest.

Now, the easiest way to get there was by train so I and a group of about dozen others decided that this would be the best way to make the journey as we wouldn't have to worry about designated drivers and such on the way back. We all boarded the train around 10:00 AM. It was a slightly overcast Saturday morning. Being September, the brief respite of summer was subsiding and the weather was cooling by the day. Still, I dressed fairly lightly in denim jeans, sneakers, Izod Lacoste shirt, and an Adidas jacket.

I had heard many things about the fair during the few weeks running up to the event so while the train shuttled us to our destination, I was anticipating a fun and relaxing day, tasting the wines and taking in the scene. Our train smoothly click-clacked along the rails and its tall windows made countryside viewing spectacular. One car of the train was a dedicated "bar" car so, as you can imagine it was easy to "get in the spirit of things" before actually arriving. With a few interim stops along the way to pick up more passengers it was about a 2 hour ride. So with the majority of my time spent in the bar car on the way up, I guess you could say I had "arrived" a good half hour before the we actually disembarked the train.

After the train ride, our group trekked its way about a quarter mile to the gates of the fair. Once inside, it looked much like any other fair you might see in America with people buzzing about to and fro, slipping shoulders to avoid collisions with each other, ride machinery creaking and groaning as the machines cycled through their evolutions and the general cacophony of screaming ride patrons and a thousand conversations taking place simultaneously.

Spinning and whirling lights and the funky sounds of buzzers, bells, whistles, polka music and neo-disco rhythms added to the sensory overload. It was a lively joint you might say. There was also an additional element which distinguished itself from most American fairs and that was the presence of at least a dozen over-sized tents, each containing 30 or 40 benches, where hundreds of people were thus seated and consuming new wine by the quart. Not a typical American scene.

It was about 1:00 pm and after a few rotations around the fairgrounds taking in a few rides and games, it was time to eat and taste the wine for which the fair was so famous. Each tent was sponsored by a specific region of wine so it made sense (at least at the time) to sample as many of the native wines as we could. Hey, the samples were free so what did one have to lose?

Now I should say that by sample I do not mean to take a bottle cap's volume of wine, swoosh it around in one's mouth, make a funny face, gargle and rinse.A "sample" was served in a glass of about a 24-ounce volume capacity and to take less from the local grower, well, that would be just considered rude. None of us wanted to be an "Ugly American" therefore we made sure that we each consumed the sample under the watchful eye of the wine's sponsor.

Smiles, smiles, smiles. Had to represent. This was not the place for tea totaling. After each sample consumed, it was time to visit yet another tent and start the process again. This went on for several more hours.

It was about 5:00 pm. By this time, our group had dissembled into three distinct units, each occasionally seeing another as we all wondered to and from the wine tents. As you could guess by now, I was not feeling too much pain. In fact, I 'm not sure I was feeling anything at all. I was still walking though but by this time it was more a function of my autonomic nervous system than a matter of will. Wine-filled I began the inevitable process of heading back in forth to the public restrooms when my body so compelled me. This regimen became pretty regular and between this duty and the less restrained flirtations with the local young ladies milling about, I became more and more detached from the group with whom I had spent the bulk of the afternoon and early evening.

It was getting close to 7:30 pm when I realized that I should probably start thinking about finding a few of my associates and try to get the group coordinated to meet back at the train. I made one more trip to the men's room and on the way, looking down, noticed once shoelace untied. Bending over, I securely tied down the wayward lace and stood up. Once up right, the world began to slowly follow. The delay caused by equilibrium to fail. I lurched sideways and then back again and then quickly copped a single knee to the ground to steady myself. As I looked around and struggled with an intense bout of vertigo, I could no longer maintain my focus on anything buzzing around me. I slowly stood and with much effort made it back to a wine-tent and sat down to compose myself.

Within a few minutes I found myself in conversation with a couple of girls who seemed interested in whatever I was blithering on about at the time. I looked down at my watch.


It was 9:15 pm and the train was leaving in ten minutes.

I had to find my buddies.

I politely but quickly excused myself and headed out of the tent to find them. Still reeling, I struggled to focus on the faces of people walking by me.

All strangers. Not a single familiar face.

Not even one I had seen before during the entire day. Continuing to circle the fair, I looked at my watch again.

9:22 pm.


"Ok. Decision time."

Do I continue this fruitless search or start heading back to the train station?

"No choice, I've got to get out of this park."

"OK. Steady yourself."

"Where's the exit?"

"Hmmm. Let's see. Oh. There's a gateway! People are congregating there."

So, I headed in the general direction of the herd. As I moved with the flow of humanity, I again looked at my watch.

9:25 pm.

"Oh man! This can't be happening. Maybe they’ll delay for a few minutes. I’ve got to get to the station. I know they'll be there."

I kept moving with the mass of people and suddenly as though a tornado had lifted from the Earth on its way to dissipation I was standing virtually alone, outside of the park. I hadn't noticed that the crowd had filtered off in various ways in a direction tangential to mine. I had followed another group that dispersed itself in parking lot almost immediately upon exiting the gate of the fair.

With automobiles now whizzing by me and standing alone, the realization resolved itself clearly.

I muttered, "They left me!"

At this point, I had no idea where the train station was or how to get there. I knew it was close but I had no clue as to the general direction I should head. Standing in the middle of a parking lot I doubted anyone would be interested in knowing where the train station was. Still, I asked a few people walking by and each shrugged and indicated either they did not know where the station was or they did not understand what the hell I was saying.

In fact, I'm quite sure that what in my mind sounded like, "Pardon me sir. Do you know where the train stations is?" probably sounded more like, "Traaassiinnthstatiooonnn, wherethhhh ithhsseeettttt?".

That's the thing about alcohol. When you drink to excess, you're mind is usually working fine and clear as a bell, albeit a bit emotional. The body (including the mouth), however, is anything but working fine. Anyway, I'm sure I frightened a few folks with my grunts and slurred expressions as I made little progress in resolving how to get back to the train station.

At this point, it was time to make another decision. I could head back to the gate, in hopes of contacting a familiar American who might take pity on me and bring me back to the base or at least the train station or head out and find it myself.

I decided on the latter.

Now, before going any further, it should be known that I was now down to my last few Marks having spent most of it on playing games and an occasional beer between wine samples. Taking a cab back to base was now financially out of the picture and besides, somebody in my group was already holding all of our tickets for the train and, of course, that included mine.

My rationale at that moment was that that one member of our group could have volunteered to stay behind and wait for me to show up at the station since my ticket would have been in hand by someone.

Looking back, however, I failed to realize that each of those lucky ticket holders was probably in about the same shape as I and completely clueless that one member of the group could have been missing at all.

Despite this fact, I decided to saunter on and try to find the station. I continued my walk. Before long I had left the lights and sounds of the fair far behind. I was alone, walking the streets of a silent German township, three sheets to the wind, and becoming less concerned with finding the train station than finding a single living soul on one of this small town's empty and shuttered streets.

Finally, I came to what appeared to be small restaurant. The lights were on and the door was slightly ajar. I could here a few voices chattering away so I walked up the short flight of steps leading into the foyer and peaked inside.

"Halo." I said.

"Halo?" another voice returned.

"Uhhhmmm. Phone?" I spoke again.

I man came to the door with a puzzled but friendly look on his face.

"Phone?" he said.

”Yah, Phone." I said.

He allowed me in and offered me to sit down at one of the tables. After I was seated he retreated into the back somewhere. There were a few people at other tables having a casual conversation over a few drinks and trying not to look too obvious in observing me. I was trying to keep a low profile but I'm quite sure they knew I was an American serviceman. Given the Adidas jacket, denim jeans and Nike athletic shoes I was wearing it was probably pretty obvious, notwithstanding my severely limited utterances.

Less than a minute later, the man who had sat me down returned. He said something but I did not understand what he was trying to communicate so I made the dialing motion with my hand and I think at that moment he understood that I was not there as a patron of his establishment. With a look of comprehension finally on his face, he walked over to the door and motioned for me to follow. I did so and stepping onto the sidewalk outside, he pointed to a pole-mounted public-phone about 25 yards down the street.

Now, at this point, I kind of figured that this guy knows I'm not going to drop a Mark in his restaurant and probably wants to get me out of there as soon as possible and with out much commotion. I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out the remainder of my stash, about 3 Marks.

"Phone", I uttered, hoping against hope that he would let me use his phone.

Again he pointed down the street.

"OK. Danke. Bye-bye"

"Bye-bye" he returned.

I walked out of the establishment and down to the phone.

Feeling quite annoyed by this time and frustrated that I could not "exactly" communicate my intentions to the restaurant owner, I angrily picked up the phone and dialed the base central office, which being a 24 hour operation, was guaranteed to have a guy on duty. The phone rang a few times and, as I had expected, was answered.

"1964th command group, central telephone office, may I help you?"

I immediately recognized the voice but in this telling I could not remember the young man's name. He was, however, a fairly green airman and had been with the group for only a couple of months.

"Hey!!!! This is Apollo!!!!!!"

"Oh... Hi Apollo, How's it going? What's up?"

'They left me!!!!!!"

"Theeyyyy left meeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!"


"Those bastards got on the train without me. I need one of guys to get in your friggen car and come pick me up!"

"Ok, Ok, , calm down Apollo - take it easy. We can definitely do that. Just relax. Le me get a pen"

'Fine..." I muttered.

About half a minute later, the airman returned back to the phone. During that time, I had noted the street name from a sign not too far away from where I was standing and also the address of the building in front of which the phone was mounted.

"Hi, Apollo. OK. We'll come and get you. Give me the address..."

That would be the last I heard from the central office that evening as a half second after the word "address" had trailed off his lips, over the wire and into my ear, the phone clicked and I was listening to the monotonous drone of German dial tone.


"Hello!!!!!!" I screamed.

"Oh my God!!!!! I don't believe it!!!

Then like the first proto-human climbing out of the forest primeval and howling at the moon having had never seen before, I went into a rage. Cursing everything around me, I yelled at the top of my lungs and into the cooling night sky. I was exhausted. It was past midnight. I had been walking around this town for over 2 hours. Finally, I came to the realization that I was just not going to be rescued from the current situation. Time to buck up and show what you’re made of”, I thought to myself. I decided, “The hell with it. I'll just walk back.”

Ok. So I decided to walk back to Ramstein AB. I still didn't know which way to go so I simple chose one. I continued walking along this long quiet street. The buildings were thinning out by now and my surroundings were becoming a bit more rural. I followed another street down for a while and came to what appeared to be a main road on the outskirts of the town. As I approached the road I could see there was a sign post with at least 8 directional arrows, 4 pointing one-way, 4 the other. “This is good.” I thought to myself as I approached the signpost. “Surely, Ramstein, Landstuhl, Kaiserslautern, SaarBrucken, or some other familiar town would be displayed on the sign.”

As I approached the Tee intersection and could resolve the names, I did not recognize a single one. Now I was livid. At this rate, I figured, by dawn I was either going to be back at base or somewhere in East Germany. I sat down for a while and contemplated my next move.

”Ok. This is stupid." I thought to myself.

"Don't panic. That won't help."

"Got to work the problem..."

By now, some (not all) of my alcoholic stupor had been shorn off with the haphazard early morning, sightseeing tour I had been on.

I chose to re-trace my steps and head back to the fair. My reasoning was simple, I remembered, finally, that the train station was less than a quarter mile from the fairground. I knew that if I made back to that location, I could probably locate the train station.

So thus, I began my long walk back.

An hour or so had passed and I was making pretty good time heading back along the streets on which I had earlier traveled. There was a slight drizzle but nothing too uncomfortable for an early morning stroll such as my own. I wasn't thinking about too much, just sort of zoned out as I closely watched my feet hitting the sidewalk before me. Then, the drizzle faded and it began to rain in earnest.

I quickened my pace a bit.

Now, it began to rain heavier and as I briskly traced my steps, I began to realize that something was wrong. I was getting wetter than I should have been. In fact, I was getting drenched and it was not more than a few seconds when I realized why I was getting so thoroughly pounded by the rain.

My Adidas jacket was gone.

Long gone.

To this day, I have no idea what happened to that jacket. I probably fell but I do not remember this at all. All I know is that I didn’t have a jacket on. This fact only added to my total and utter incomprehension of why this was even happening to me. In fact, I did not even break my stride. I simply grunted and continued my power walk back.

Another 30 minutes had elapsed and the rain was steadily falling. I decided to pick up the pace a bit again. In fact, I decided to jog back.

So, I started to jog.

I jogged for at least 20 minutes before I realized something again was quite wrong.

As I jogged, I began to notice certain landmarks I had passed earlier. This buoyed my spirit and I felt a second wind pick me up as I continued my journey back. I began to see automobiles and the cityscape coming into view was, now, no longer an isolated township but that of a mid-sized city with traffic going to and fro. Cars began to drive by me in each direction. As I jogged into the city center, the rain had morphed into a downpour. While jogging into the city, I realized that the smooth cadence of my stride had become somewhat stilted and staccato. I didn't even think to look down but I knew something was wrong. I continued my fearless penetration into the city center and finally having jogged far enough, slowed down to catch my breath a bit. As my jog slid back into a brisk walk, it became all too obvious what was wrong.

I looked down at my feet and saw something there quite odd.

Turns out, I had lost one of my brand new Nike tennis shoes, somewhere along the journey. It was the right shoe and it was missing.

In fact, I had to stop.

I looked down at my right foot and it appeared that my sock was gone as well. I lifted the hem of my right trouser leg to observer the oddity.

As my foot came into view, it was obvious that part of the sock has survived the journey. Still attached to my foot, there was not much left of the sock, save the elastic band around my right ankle.

There was, however, a single flap of sock material pasted nicely over the top of foot in what could best be described as, now, a spat.

About the time I realized I was missing much of my wardrobe, I noticed cars driving by me with faces pasted to the windows. I guess by this time, I was pretty much a mess. It was about 2:30 AM, I was soaking wet, I had no jacket, no right shoe, and only had half of a right sock.

But guess what?

I jogged right into the train station where there were dozens of people still waiting for the next train.

Ok. Yeah… I looked like crap and I was broke. However, I had surmounted all odds and made it back.

There was still one thing left going for me after all my travails that evening.


And believe me, I worked it. I wandered up to a small lineup at the ticket counter. Recognizing a serviceman, I asked him if he would be so kind as to buy me ticket since I was basically stranded if not ditched.

Taking pity on me (of course), he assented to my request and bought me a ticket.

He and I went over to a bench, sat down and had a nice conversation for a few minutes and the train arrival was announced. We both took our seats on the train and waited for the departure.

As we waited, I noticed a train engineer walking down the aisle checking tickest from each of the passengers. As he reached me, I handed him my ticket. He punched the ticket with the small hole-punch he was carrying and turned to face the serviceman who had just purchased it for me.

This poor guy didn't even see it coming.

The engineer asked him for the ticket.

He responded, "I bought two tickets, isn't that ticket (the one I was holding) for two?"

"Noooo, it only for one." the engineer responded.

Now at this moment, if I had been Matthew Broderick playing Ferris Bueler, it would have been the perfect moment to look directly into the camera and smirk.

Fortunately, the engineer allowed the guy to purchase the ticket on the spot and he was out of the jam.

After the ordeal I had just been through, I'm not really sure if I would have been so magnanimous as to admit he had purchased the ticket for me. Hey, who knows? The money probably went into the engineer's pocket anyway.

By this time, I was too tired to care.

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