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I'm a Conservative Troglodyte who puts more emphasis on common sense rather than political parties.

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Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Smiles on their Faces
Part I

No sources today. Not a link in the mix.

No, today is about speaking from the heart and from the mind. Today is about romancing a new-found Democracy in a country of which I’ve never visited in person. I know the "ground," however. I know it better than most, because I have had the sobering opportunity to witness the difference in stark contrast. It is no fluke that I remember that encounter more clearly than I remember Friday’s lunch. What’s remarkable is that the experiences of which I speak occurred in the closing of 1989. Nearly sixteen years ago I watched it unfold to a glorious crescendo.

You don’t forget something like that. You don’t want to fail to remember.

Iraq, the country, is but a media generated land, selectively dished out under the guise of agenda; sometimes indignation. Regardless of the source, I know what’s missing in those reports. I’ve seen it elsewhere. I’ve touched it. I’ve shared in its celebration and cautiousness.

In September and November of 1989 I was in Germany, and Austria, and Italy (despite the rail strike) on what was supposed to be your typical European vacation culminating with a week long testing of Bavaria’s finest at Oktoberfest. The Lockerbie Scotland terrorist attack of Pan Am 103 was less than a year in the past, but that didn’t lessen the presence of armed military toting automatic weapons in Frankfurt International Airport. It was an eye-opener at the time. But, it is not what I remember in clarity. I remember something more imperative.

The vacation was, actually, a visit of sorts. My college room mate, and best friend, was a Lt. in the 11th Armored Cavalry stationed in the Fulda Gap. The “Blackhorse Regiment”, literally, sat on the edge of freedom and liberty with the mission of holding back a Russian presence more than 10 times its size. It was their job to provide other divisions time to react should the Russians ever attempt to push the boundary. It was our intention to pal around the region testing the libations and taking in the culture for a couple weeks. We had no schedule of consequence. We had no ambition beyond relaxation. We had no idea just how monumental a change was about to take place.

Arriving at 9AM on a brisk German morning did little to quell my goal of testing out the domestic brew at my earliest convenience. I’ve always enjoyed a good beer. Having the opportunity to test out some of the world’s best was supposed to be a highlight of my trip, second only to catching up with the Lt. He and I had always done our best in college to assure that no US beer manufacturer felt slighted. It was our goal to perpetrate that philosophy internationally. I can say with all honesty that we jumped right into that game plan, and it wasn’t long before we were riding the rail back to Fulda “biers” in hand rehashing the usual embarrassing stories that always seemed to start with a bottle opener.

Arriving in Fulda was uneventful until we reached the Lt’s apartment. Waiting patiently on the walk along the narrow street were some of the Lt’s friends from the Regiment. They had all the makings of an ad hoc party inclusive of cases of Bud Var (simply the best bier on the planet hailing from Czechoslovakia no less), various meats, cheeses, and accoutrements. The smiles of these young soldiers upon our uneventful arrival were not so curious. They weren’t there to see me. I was a sideshow of sorts.

What I failed to mention previously is that I didn’t travel from the States alone. I had talked nine (9) female friends (consequently, all from the same college Sorority) into traveling with me. The Lt. and I realized that college was a place to develop socially as well as academically. Getting to know these young ladies was a welcome by-product of that attitude. Not surprisingly, the word of their arrival had gotten out and had we taken a vote among the 11th we would have confirmed that there were some things about the States that they missed more than others.

So it began.

The next morning was a Sunday. Back then, Sunday mornings on the Autobahn was, by far, the most exciting. Germans with high performance machines would take their Mercedes, their Beamers and their Porches out on the roadway and matter-of-factly proceed to remove the carbon build up out of their high bred machines. It wasn’t unusual, I found, to be traveling 100 mph, and have your left doors blown off by someone taking their pride and joy to a new level. A number of the members of our little band had had their own American cars shipped over to their base so that they could open them up on the Autobahn. The Lt. had a Mustang convertible for just such an occasion. While I had never gone faster in a car before that morning, there were times that felt like we were standing still. There was, also, a growing danger that had just started to occur.

A couple months previously in the growing discontent of residents, the government of Hungary had reluctantly opened its borders to Austria in an effort to appease the unrest. As a result, the German Autobahn had started to establish a growing presence of East German and Russian cars that had some real performance issues. These “Trabbies” and “Wartburgs” with their chipmunk engines had no power. Their constant laboring to maintain 45 mph and their boxy appearance set them out among those cars common to the region. Horrific auto accidents were becoming commonplace. The usual “hair on fire” normalcy of a Sunday morning race track had started to become a slalom course in avoidance of the sub par cars of Communism. It was a menace.

Ironically, it was, also, a wonderful harbinger of things to come.

(to be continued)

First a side story before we get to the meat.

I can tell this story now because there is little chance of getting anyone in trouble. It didn’t take long to make some long lasting friendships with those young men from the 11th Reg. Our little caravan of American made Thunderbirds, Mustangs, and pick-ups made our way up to a little town on the happy side of the East/West line. Fortified with a couple of bottles of Jaeger Meister purchased in a small general store on the outskirts of Rasdorf we made our way up to the very edge of the divider between freedom and fiefdom.

The border, at the time, was not just a fence like you would assume. Instead there was a large area between the actual boundary that included flare trip lines, land mines, and a flat area ominously overseen by East German towers that provided a clear field of fire. Each tower, noticeably visible from our side was manned by what appeared to be two guards. It was, clearly, a sobering experience despite our best efforts.

It was my understanding that our trek to the border was to show me, the new guy of the group, something new. I thought that was the highlight of that early afternoon visit. However, when they opened the trunk of one of our transports and pulled out an old black and white television that had seen better days I started to get the impression that hi-jinks were afoot. I was right.

Two of our band carried the television up to a cluster of trees just beyond the border and proceeded to set it down on the side not immediately visible to either of the East German towers. They then proceeded to launch into some of the worst over the top acting that I have ever bared witness. Acting as if in an intense purposeful focus they started pointing animatedly at the border area. Then, they vigorously started turning the dials and moving the antenna continuously, all the while acting like they were on some curious mission. I was confused and amused all at the same time. It wasn’t until the Lt. let out a bit of a smile that I knew I was being put on. Up until that point I was just as perplexed as the East Germans watching every move and gesture. I was then let in on the scam.

It wasn’t, exactly, explained to me at the time. However, when a huge Mi-8 Soviet Helicopter popped up behind one of the towers a few minutes later I got the message. In unison my new found friends proceeded to do an about face in order to deliver a message to their counterparts on the other side of the fence. Belts unhooked, pants hit the ankles, and the 11th Reg. mooned on command. It was clearly one of the funniest things that I had ever witnessed. The entertainment escalated when we could, visibly, see the guards in the closest tower throw their heads back in laughter. What an afternoon. I’ve never laughed so hard. Never have I since.

(to be continued later this evening)
The next week was a roller coaster of events and activities. All the time, seemingly small occurrences were foreshadowing the amazing measures that were on the immediate horizon. I recall nursing a rather wicked hang over one particular morning while glancing through the daily newspaper. Remarkably, Gorbachev was in East Berlin and made a public address the day before. For the first time the press was reporting about overt heckling coming from the crowd. There was an escalation of unconcealed discontent that was not being downplayed by the East’s press. It struck me as unusual and unique. But, that’s all. I didn’t think more of it. Instead, we began our trek south to partake in the annual Oktoberfest celebration in Munich.

Oktoberfest is an annual celebration that holds the distinction as the largest public festival in the world. It stems from the wedding celebration of King Ludwig I and has grown into a theme park of sorts. However, the major draw has always been the bier “tents.” Each of the major brewers has their own designated tent complete with long communal tables and a centered oompah band. All day, everyday of the festival, the tents are packed with travelers from all over the world enjoying the brew of choice in liter glasses while tempting sobriety with the occasional half-chicken, pork sausage, or ridiculously large pretzel.

I’ve attended Oktoberfest three times in my life. I’ve found some consistencies concerning the attendees in all three visits. First, the Italians; they are, absolutely, positively, without question insane. There is no way around it. That nationality knows how to enjoy life. They are, also, rather loose with their marriage proposals after a couple sips. There is a tradition among them that they perform every Oktoberfest. If someone in their group over indulges and proceeds to decide on a little nap at the table, there is a price to be paid. Out come shaving cream, scissors, and the razors. When the unfortunate individual regains consciousness, he (or she) is balder than 90 year-old monk. My friends and I were careful to moderate our intake based solely on the potential that the Italians that we befriended would go to work on one of us. The guys from the 11th had less to worry about due to their, already, dwindling locks. The rather prudish sorority crew was more concerned. Incidentally, in an effort to get them to loosen up, the Lt. and I had made a quick stop at the "sex" shop below our hotel to purchase a rather large "Washington Monument" shaped item which, miraculously found its way into selective suitcases each time we crossed a border Customs search.

A close second is, not surprisingly, the Australians. They sing; they stand on the chairs and dance; they slap you on the back and call you their mate at every slurred opportunity. However, it is my opinion, that Australians are some of the best natured folks on the planet. I’ve had the splendid opportunity to earn a number of Australian friends through my Oktoberfest experiences.

No matter the brewers’ tent that you attend (Löwenbräu-Festhalle, Augustiner-Festhalle, Spatenbräu-Festhalle (Ochsenbraterei), Hofbräu-Festzelt etc) the clientele are nothing short of a worldwide collective from all over the blue marble. And, quite frankly, I have never met a single individual in that setting who showed any animosity to another based on nationality. Even the French were fun to be around. However, on this particular visit in 1989 there was a new group of participants who just lit up the room. East Germans, having traveled over the border in Hungary, were meeting up at Oktoberfest to celebrate their good fortune.

The atmosphere during Oktoberfest in any given year was electric. We were all together enjoying the company and the suds. Cares outside the tent dissolved quite easily. Conversations flowed almost as effortlessly as the continuous flow of bier. Language barriers were overcome by simple nods, handshakes, and smiles. Oh brother there were smiles. However, this particular year the smiles of the East Germans were perpetual. They didn’t stop. They didn’t waver. I don’t think they could control them.

It was contagious.

(to be continued)

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