I have faith, not blind faith mind you, in people and by extension humanity. Not the institutions and organizations we’ve formed to reinforce our differences. Those distort our perceptions through insistent terminology that divides, not joins. It’s the individual that concerns me, which is why I see every person as a human being first and foremost. So I’ll tell you, that is if you’re still reading, an old story.
From 1984 to 1986 I was in the US Army stationed at McCully Barracks at Wackernheim in West Germany. Thanks to Reagan’s hawkish posturing it was a somewhat tense time there. Older Germans who remembered WW2 and the stories of the Soviet Army’s treatment of German civilians welcomed us and appreciated our presence. Younger Germans not so much. There were terrorism issues in Europe, the Red Army, memories of the Baader Meinhof gang and such. We had lists of places to avoid for various reasons including potential terrorist threats. In fact, about 18 months after this story a woman lured an American serviceman out of a club to a location where he was murdered by her cohorts. They used his ID with a changed photo to plant a car bomb on Rhein Main AFB that killed four people. Thats later though.
I arrived in Germany in July of 1984. In October I went into the nearby city of Mainz with some friends. We had dinner, did some drinking, then they decided to go to Frankfurt am Main via train. I didn’t have enough money, so I got left at the Hauptbahnhof(Main train station). It was alright. I wanted to walk around the city some anyway. I wasn’t familiar with anything yet and enjoyed exploring on my own. So they left and I head over to the Mainz Dom Cathedral to take some pictures of it at night. I could take the bus back to Wackernheim so I wasn’t worried. I felt safe enough. Walking around by yourself nobody could really tell if you were American until you spoke.
Now, I’ll point out here that the 16 bus was the primary line to Wackernheim. The 216 also ran to Wackernheim, but not on every run. I had checked the bus schedule and knew that the 216 was the last bus of the night, leaving the Mainz Hauptbahnhof at 2110 ( 9:10 pm for American followers)
There was a bordello/sex club/bar called ‘Crazy Sexys’ by the Hauptbahnhof, so by 2030 I was there having a couple whiskey and cokes. I was 19 and that was legal drinking age in West Germany, so of course I was. By 2100 I was waiting at the bus stop. At 2109 the bus arrived, Cuz public transportation there ran on time like clockwork. I had my ticket, I hopped on and took my seat.
Now, it was dark and I didn’t know my way around too well yet, so it didn’t occur to me for some time that we might not be going the right way. I got a bad feeling though when we didn’t seem to be making enough stops. The feeling got worse when we got on a road that went quite a ways into dark countryside. So I was upset but not too surprised when the bus pulled up to its last stop at an unfamiliar town. Last stop as in it was done and going to a yard across from the bus stop. I tried to explain my problem to the driver and all he said was “Taxi! Taxi!” Which wasn’t gonna do me any good. I had 3 DeutschMarks (about one US dollar) which wouldn’t even get me in the cab. Plus this was not only pre cell phone but pre ATM as well. I didn’t know the phone number for the base, and nobody would have come to get me anyhow. Plus, since I didn’t even know what town I was in, I could hardly ask somebody to pick me up even if they would have come for me. The only thing I knew was what road I’d come in on. So I started walking. Knowing it was gonna be one looooonng walk.
I got out in the countryside and it was DARK. No lights anywhere. It was cool and actually kind of nice. I wasn’t frightened or all that upset once I got going. No point in that. And it felt like an adventure. Lost in another country on another continent. Worst thing I figured on was walking all night long and barely getting back to post in time for first formation.
So I’m walking and I see a light coming over the hill. Then I hear a high pitched whine. And then a moped was rolling towards me. I just kept to my side of the road as it got near. I could see there was a guy, maybe twenty, driving with a smaller kid in front of him. They wobbled past, looking at me, then I heard it slow down and stop. I glanced back and saw them watching me. I kept walking, glancing over my shoulder and got nervous when I saw the smaller kid hop off and start walking towards the town I’d just left. That didn’t seem a good thing. Then I heard the bike rev up and start towards me. THAT made me very nervous.
So I watch the light on the pavement get brighter, then the bike rolled up next to me. Thats when I noticed it wasn’t a moped but a motorbike. With maybe a 50cc motor at best. “Hey hey!” the driver said, so I stopped and turned to face him.
“Wie gehts?” I said, using half the German I could speak at that time. He answered and I got none of it. Not one word. He was taller than me and broad shouldered. He seemed puzzled, not hostile though. He said some more, talking slowly, but I still couldn’t follow what he was saying. Finally, he said
‘Amerikanisch Soldaten?“ THAT I understood. He wanted to know if I was an American soldier. I nodded, because when you’re obviously something, pretending you’re not is pointless. “Wo wohnen sie?”
(Where do you live?) I got that too, obviously, so I said Wackernheim. His eyes got big and then he said something else too quickly for me to get. Then he pointed up the road and made a walking motion with his fingers. I nodded again. He said “Taxi?” I shook my head no and said “Bus” and pointed back towards the town. “Ahhh.” he said, then shifted forward on his seat and slapped the open portion. “Kommen! Komme!” he said. I just stood there, so he patted the seat again, pointed up the road, then said “Wackernheim, ja? Ja?”
Well, you gotta just go where you’re going sometimes. I decided later that I had ended up outside Bad Schwalbach, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) from Wackernheim. I WOULD have been walking all night. But I got on his bike and we wobbled on up the road. First big hill we came to, the bike didn’t have enough power to climb it with both of us on it, so I hopped off and pushed from behind til we got to the top. I doubt we ever topped 35kph, except going downhill trying to get enough speed for the upslope. It took close to an hour, but he rode me right up to the gate of our post. I tried to tell him to wait while I got some money to give him, but he just laughed, shook my hand, shouted “Tschuss!” and wobbled off into the night. This young guy had been nearly home, but he went nearly two hours out of his way to help a complete stranger. Absolutely no reason he would be expected to do so, but he never hesitated. And when I told my sergeant about what had happened I got my ass chewed out for being so stupid and doing something so"dangerous”. They even used my story as an example of what not to do for other newfs. Because we weren’t supposed to trust the very people we were stationed among and there to protect. And I’ll admit, there was some risk. It wasn’t intentional. But I certainly never considered it a warning or cautionary tale. That ride through the darkness, laughing as we plunged down hills and pushed that bike uphill is still, without a question, my favorite memory from the entire time I was in Germany. Kindness from a complete stranger. Still makes me smile. I’m smiling now.