09 Feb, 2010 | Posted by: photosource


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GermanyClick on photo to enlarge

GermanyClick on photo to enlarge


My Story


At 5:00 a.m. on the morning of May 20th 1957, the wake up shrill of a well-scratched reveille record pierced the PA system in the hallway of our barracks. I lifted the blind, looked out and saw fog everywhere. “Jeeze”, I said.

I don’t know if I was saying the “Jeeze” to the fog out there or just that I gotta do it. I gotta follow through and just get on that motor scooter today and head west.

But if I didn’t follow through, what would I tell all the people that tried to convince me not to go on this trip?

Sleeping wasn’t easy during last night. Several times my thoughts turned to just forgetting the whole thing. I could do that. Several times in the last week as my discharge date came up I thought about just dropping the whole idea.

I could sell my Vespa in downtown Wuerzburg and buy a plane ticket back to the states. I could spend a few more days with Maria, or a few more weeks or the whole summer, or a lifetime with her. She wasn’t there to see me off. I cut things off. I told her not to be there.
“No, no, don’t do this, forget the trip. Dump it. It’ll make you feel better” was what I heard in my head. And it wasn’t the people who surrounded me talking, it was I saying it.
But I looked at all my travel belongings. I had prepared the night before to strap on to my Vespa. And thought about all the official papers I had filled out and the goodbyes I had made. It would be easy to appear on Maria’s doorstep. But the sun was now coming up and by the time it was setting on May 20th 1957, I had to be somewhere, and it couldn’t be in the barracks of the 8212th AAI Unit.

Rick caught up with me on the way to the mess hall for breakfast. He grabbed my shoulder and squeezed. “This is it,” he said. “Freedom!” he shouted.

I tried to muster a smile. I guess I did for his sake. He was happy for me.
I was scared. What had I done? Why had I chosen to take this trip?
Was Lieutenant Kohler right? Was I running away from something?
I had told him, “No, I’m breaking away. I’m not running away.”
At breakfast, I had no appetite.
Sergeant Adams came by our table in the mess hall, stood over me and tossed a brown enveloped near my plate. “There it is, Engh, your discharge papers. Lieutenant Kohler says to shoot a tiger for him in Africa.”
“I mumbled as I looked at the envelope, “ They don’t have any tigers in Africa.”
“Well, don’t shoot yourself in the foot!” He said, walking away smiling, something I rarely saw from h im.
“He’s just jealous,” Rick said.

Back at the barracks, Rick helped me pack the motor scooter. I had shipped all of my non-trip belongings back to Maryland. All that remained were the essentials for my trip: my guitar, my pup tent, my Rollieflex, a map and the “civvies” I had chosen to wear on my journey.

What with the fog hanging over the gray cement-block buildings around the quadrangle and the sun starting to break through the heavy mist and the silver color of my sparkling new Vespa, it all gave a silvery tinge to my departure.

Rick grabbed me by the neck, shook me a little, and didn’t say anything as he shook his head. “Good luck!”

I whistled to Rick who was walking back to the quadrangle where everyone was assembling for roll call. He turned, gave a “thumbs up” gesture, turned and continued on. .

I was alone. I was on my own.

I started up the Vespa, swallowed, and headed west.

I left all the doubts about canceling the trip behind. I was on my way. The horizon awaited me. I didn’t feel good about all this. “So this was ‘freedom’?” I said to myself.
My first day on the road was a frightening one. An accident near the end of the day nearly ended the trip on the first day.
The road out of Wuerzburg winds around the sloping vineyards that border the city to the west and twists and turns through a series of hills and valleys toward the nearby river city of Frankfort/Main.
I hadn’t really had much experience driving the Vespa. On highways. I drove at cautious speeds, much to the irritation of fast moving Germans cars and Army trucks. It was a cold morning and heavy winds swept across the countryside. I had attached a windshield to the Vespa. The winds would sometimes catch me from the back and other times sweep in from the right, causing me to veer onto the opposite lane (in Germany, people drive in the right lane like in the USA).
Then suddenly the wind would shift and catch sideways in the windshield. The wind would treat it like a sail, and would send the scooter sweeping at sudden angles off the road or into the oncoming lane.
I had to concentrate every moment in preparation for the next gust of wind. The newness of driving a motor scooter was uncomfortable enough, but the sudden jolts from the wind made steering not so pleasant.
That first day, I made a distance of only 80 miles. It took me six hours. Other motorcyclists and motor scooters passed me. Some of them waved to me and were probably surprised at not seeing a grandmother driving the Vespa. It wasn’t just a couple of times the thought entered my head that when I got to Frankfurt, I could drive into the Vespa distributorship, sell my machine, and buy an airline ticket to Baltimore.

Sometimes I would stop in a village or alongside the roadway to watch the passing traffic and the people bustling on their way to work or doing their everyday chores. If I caught someone’s eye, I would nod my head and say, “Gruess Gott.’ Which was the normal way of saying hello to a stranger in this part of West Germany. My brand spanking new Vespa was a clue to them that I must be just starting out. Some would actually stop and ask where I was off to and if I was an American and all that. Then they would head off on their daily routine or whatever they had to do that day.

Well, I didn’t have anything to do that day except move westward or just stay set or whatever I wanted to do. It’s then that I think an overwhelming feeling of independence overcame me. I wasn’t beholden to anybody. Not Colonel Henderson, not Lieutenant Kohler, not to my parents, not to anybody. I can’t remember ever feeling this way.

I was to feel that way a lot on the road ahead. The sun was my clock and the leaves would be my calendar. But independen ce has its price I was to learn too.
I had $192.50 in my pocket in USA cash. I didn’t exchange it for the local currency. The Germans liked U.S. dollars even more than their own deutschmarks. I suspected everyone in Europe would be glad to accept the dollar.
Late in the afternoon, I learned my first lesson for the beginner on a motor scooter. Pay attention to the road. As I was nearing the village of Dettingen, I came up on a steep grade that ended in a beautiful view, actually a panoramic view, of a wide valley with little farms and quilted vegetable patches, I locked into the immensity of the scene and didn’t notice that the road made a sharp winding curve around the mountain.
I felt the scooter wheels hit the gravel that bordered the road. It was too late to avoid an accident. I guided the scooter so that it slid sideways into a guardrail that protected the road from a cliff.

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