09 Jun, 2010 | Posted by: photosource

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My Story


“What a meal!” I smiled to his wife, Florence, who was clearing off the table as Jean handed us the fruit bowl. I liked to study the smile that comes on a housewife’s face when you compliment her about the meal. She really doesn’t know if I meant it was good or not, so I always watch the expression when I say it. Sometimes her face will be the same expression as if I said, “I think it’s going to rain.”

But other times if she put a lot of work into the meal, like she used some special herb or something, she’ll think you have recognized her particular touch, that sort of thing, and thinks you’re a connoisseur or something, and I can see she really appreciates my comment.
“Well boys, in just a half hour, you’ll be meeting the other club members of Avignon.” Our host, Jean, said.
I think he had some jitteriness like he wondered if it was all going to go well, or maybe it wasn’t appropriate to have a German at the meeting; some of the members were actually fighting Germans a decade ago, or worse, some of them were in the French resistance and killing them through guerilla warfare. And some had relatives killed by the Germans in retribution.

Or maybe Jean was just congratulating himself that he put this whole thing together and people would remember for a long time how he discovered us, the troubadours on a motor scooter. We were the first “Vespa-motorists” to come through town; or maybe he read about us in the Lyon newspaper last week or maybe his club members thought he arranged for us to come down from Paris. France was beginning to get American rock bands. Maybe his members thought we were something like that.
Anyway, he thought it all would be good for business.

And I wondered if the club members would be as enthusiastic about motor scooters as Jean.
They were.
“And Mr. Engh, what if a rhinoceros charges you in Africa? Do you think the Vespa will be fast enough to pull away?” A young teen girl asked.
“Our scooter’s pretty fast! I don’t think he could ca tch us,” I smiled. Another fellow interrupted, “Can you fellows find parts for the scooter in Africa?”
I told them I didn’t know, but that Rudi was a good mechanic, and could probably get us through.

We watched a film about the care and treatment of a motor scooter and got some good pointers from it- - some that were very useful later on. After the film, Jean popped open a few liters of champagne that he had bought as a surprise, in honor of us, and requested Rudi and me to sing a few songs. When we finished the first song, they all got together, there must have been at least twenty-five of them, and they sang a toast to us, and then sang their stirring national anthem, the Marseilles. It was a reminder how much the French love adventure.

When the meeting was winding down, a scrubby fellow, probably in his 60’s, came limping up to me and raising his wine glass said, “Here’s to many adventurous miles head and a life well invested!” We clinked glasses.

He was a former French Foreign Legion soldier who was discharged from Algeria because of injuries. The French had the North African colony for more than a hundred years or so. They were now fighting to keep the colony. Not a popular side to be on. Rudi and I would soon be learning a lot more about that war in a few weeks, since Algeria was our starting off point to head south across the Sahara and into black Africa.

The camaraderie that evening made us feel good to know that at least in Europe, there were always going to be pockets of more scooter enthusiasts that “speak our language.” We sang a few more songs, and then our host, Jean, announced that it was midnight and time to get home. Three girls came over to Rudi and me before we left the meeting and presented us with three corks from the champagne bottles. They had tied a wire around them. Each of them had written their home address on them.
“We’d like you to tie this on your scooter in remembrance of our club,” she said, handing the corks to Rudi.
“And if you do, the corks will bring you good luck!” Another added. That was friendly. I examined the corks and smiled and promised to write them all a post card from South Africa.
As I handed the corks back to Rudi I had a weird feeling that someday, it was going to bring us very good luck.
“Let’s head on home!” Jean shouted, waiting to turn out the lights.
We spent the night at Jean and Florence’s house, and in the morning went around to pick up the motor scooter. “It looks in fine shape.” Rudi said, examining Pierre’s work. “What’s that going to cost us?”
“Not a thing,” Jean laughed, “We’re happy to help you two fellows out. Just wish we could do more!”
“More?” I said, “We never dreamed we’d be treated so well when we passed through this door yesterday!”
We bid Jean and Pierre au revoir and headed toward the ancient Roman city of Nimes where we made a quick stop to make a presentation at the local Lions Club whose members all chipped together to buy us a hotel room and two tickets to the bullfight held the next day in the ancient coliseum at Nimes.

Rain was with us all the way to the coast, where we reached the port city of Sete, on the Mediterranean. We took shelter under the overhang of a bistro when the rain really started blasting at us. Two other men had just run in there too, bumping into us as they arrived. Shaking the rainwater off each other like a quartet of sheep dogs, we felt the comradeship that a rainstorm often puts stranded victims together.

We struck up a conversation
. They were German sailors! And guess what? They invited us to accompany them to their freighter in the harbor. They had come into town to buy some cognac and beer. It was Saturday.

“Fine idea!” Rudi said, “I was a month on a freighter coming back from India, and I’d like to visit one again.” When the rain finally stopped we headed down to the harbor where Günter, that was his name, pointed out his freighter. When you’re down at the wharf level and you’re walking between two of them you feel like you’re in new w York City walking between two skyscrapers. It’s humbling to think that these giant iron and steel vessels are the offspring of the 13th century galleon that used to sail the seas battling 20-foot waves 600 years ago. Günter said his was a mid-sized ship but it looked pretty big to me.

“She’s a nice friendly ship,” Günter said. He was middle-aged man, strongly built, and with narrow hips that caused his pants to hang far below his waste line. He had kind of a crooked smile that came up sideways on his face as though he was going to speak secretly out of the side of his mouth. When we arrived at the gangplank, he said, “I think you better go up and meet the Captain first before you come down to visit us.”

I was excited. I’d never been on a freighter before.

One of the sailors went in first when we reached the Captain’s office near the bow of the ship. A brass sign on his door said, “Kapitan H.L. Rohmer.” A working table was in the center of the room and his desk was over on the right-hand side.
My army experience and Rudi’s Germanic nature caused us to stand tall in stiff-spine attention. After the brief talk with the Captain the sailor came out and said, “You can go in.”
“Please to meet you sir, Rudi Thurau.”
“Pleased to meet you sir, Rohn Engh.”

We didn’t do it in a comic-like nature, but it would’ve been entertaining to my friends if they had seen it. It was sort of like meeting the pope or General Eisenhower or somebody.
At his desk, he took off his glasses and uttered a “Glad to have you aboard.” all in German. This was a German ship and German would be spoken here.

“We don’t often have visitors here, but today’s the weekend. You’re welcome aboard.”
I looked out the porthole window and France was outside. We’d been in France for ten days, but suddenly we were in Germany. Every thing on the walls, the language, the men, and the atmosphere –it was all German. German rules prevailed.

The Captain was a Teutonic type, intelligent-looking with white hair, close cropped, almost a brother to Winston Churchill. “So you’re all making a tour of the world?” He spoke from the back of his throat. The tight wrinkle on his forehead kind of followed his conversation.
“Yes, sir, except we’re on a motor scooter,” Rudi said.
“The both of you on one scooter?”
“Yes sir, and it’s working out well,” Rudi returned.
The Captain grimaced, “Well you’ve got a lot of places to go before you’ve seen what I’ve seen. —the Orient, India, the United States, Africa—seen ‘em all!
“Where are you heading from here, sir?” Rudi asked.
He looked at Rudi and then over at me. I guess he wanted to make sure we weren’t spies or something. I guess he could’ve made up any destination.
“From here we go to Casablanca. You going there too?”
“Yes sir, I think we’ll make Casablanca. Might see you there, sir.” Rudi said.
“hmmmph!” was all he answered.
“How ’bout you,” he looked at me. “They said you were an American. Do you speak German?”
“Enough to get by,” I answered him.
He turned to Rudi. “Where you from, son?”
“Right now my home is in Bremerhaven. I was born in “Luneburg.”
“You doing any kind of work on this ‘world tour’?”
Rudi figured that the Captain was looking to find out if we were opportunists, seeing the world at the expense of others. But we were used to that so we had some pretty standard answers, depending on which country we were in and who was asking the question.

“Yes, sir. We get odd jobs here and there. Rohn’s writing articles for an American newspaper (of course they weren’t being sold as yet!) and we sing for our supper, as well. We’re entertainers. We sing for our supper”
“Do you sing, “Rosa Marie?” He challenged us.
“Of course.” Rudi said.
“Well, you’ll both get a good supper, if you sing it for me here. It’s my favorite song.”
We could see he wasn’t as gruff as he made out to be.
We tuned up our guitars and sang his song and a few other north German folk tunes. He looked at his watch and called to the steward when we had finished. “Bring extras for these boys! “
“A German meal?” Rudi asked.
“What else.?” The Captain looked up through bushy eyebrows.
Rudi smiled, “The first one in eight months,” and the two Germans chuckled while three other top members of his crew arrived to join us for the Saturday evening meal.
“Sit down boys! Sit down!” he motioned while his top crewmembers came in for their evening meal. They all looked like the kind of guys you see in those German U-boat movies except for the grease and sweat.
“Malzeit! Rudi said. It’s a German expression, like when you say, “Bon Appetit. Come to think of it, I don’t know exactly what it means, but it’s something to say like, “We’re all going to have a good meal here, and I wish us all a good appetite.” – something like that.

The waiter brought in four big huge bowls. One was sauerkraut, one was some kind of boiled potatoes, and one was filled with chucks of boiled ham. Another was some kind of dumpling mix. We took turns piling the combination on to our plates. And before the steward could return with the salt and pepper I had requested, the Germans were finishing off their meal with beer the Captain had reserved for this kind of event.
“You want to visit the hands down below now, I suppose.” The Captain said, dismissing his staff and picking up his glasses and newspaper.

“Yes, we were just going to suggest that.” Rudi smiled politely.
“Sure enjoyed the meal, Captain!” I said.
He looked up from his newspaper again. He must’ve liked our interruption to his regular routine. “Maybe we’ll meet again in Casablanca!” he said, “You’re welcome to stay the weekend. My first Officer will make sure you’re settled in. But be off the ship by Monday morning.”
We excused ourselves and went below.
Walking below on a freighter is like walking blindfolded. Unless you’re a veteran at it you’re always feeling your way around through funny entrances and passageways. I stumbled over a half-dozen doorsills until I got used to the stepping up and over before going through each doorway.
We found Günter and a group of six seamen celebrating Saturday night with bottles of cognac, beer, American cigarettes and deafening music from a radio, all tucked into a small cabin room designed for two people.
“Hummel, Hummel “ Rudi shouted, a north German expression of questionable decency.
“Moss!” “Moss!” A person from Hamburg always returned. And there were about four of them who shouted it from the little cabin.
“C’mon in here you guys, we’ve been waitin’ for you!” Sure took you a long time to kiss the Captain’s ass!” Günter shouted, a little under the weather from the cognac.

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