De' fliengde Vuogtlänn'r

Observations, rants, etc. from a guy who really gets around.


Go West, Young Man (Part I)

Before heading off to Germany, it was necessary to attend a five-day orientation in Salt Lake City, followed by eight weeks of language training under the auspices of Brigham Young University in Provo.

The curriculum at BYU is modeled after Goethe Institut, which involves total immersion in the new language. Ergo, after the third day, we were not allowed to speak English, except for emergencies. It gets really quiet there after the third day. Eight weeks is not much time for learning a foreign language, but we did a pretty fair job. One of my colleagues had had four years of German in high school. After the third week, which was the first phase of our instruction, he closed his book and said "You've surpassed everything I ever learned in four years of high school German." Little did we know....

In early December, we boarded a plane and made the trip across the pond. It was a long, exhausting flight and the first thing we could think of after landing was sleep. And food. That first 24 hours are a bit of a blur, but it's a credit to German photographers that the best photograph ever take of me up to that point in my life was taken after that exhausting trip and before I had gotten either food or sleep. We did get a nap while the office staff took our passports over to the American Consulate to do whatever paperwork they had to do. That afternoon, they came and got us, took us to an early dinner, then back to the office, where we had some orientation. The next morning, they gave us our assignments and put most of us on trains to various cities. My first assignment was right there in M�ünchen, so all I had to do was wait for someone to pick me up.

I only stayed in München for two weeks, then left for Coburg. That was even worse. It was cold, I got sick, it was a tiny little town, and almost all the people speak this horrible dialect called Bayerisch. After living mostly in Bayern for two years, I could still barely understand it. That only lasted for about five weeks, and I wound up in München again. This wasn't quite as bad as the first time, as I was working with the office staff and living in their rather nice apartment.

After three weeks, I got shipped off to Stuttgart, which was a great change of pace for me. Big, but not too big. The people were friendlier, and I was picking up a lot more of the language. Schwäbisch is probably the second hardest of the German dialects, but I seemed to pick it up. I worked with a great guy from Rupert, Idaho, and we still keep in touch after all these years.

Stuttgart lasted for three months, and Spring was just breaking as I left for Nürnberg. The train ride over was rather nice, and one of my colleagues was on the train as well. We had a few hours to get acquainted during the ride. Nürnberg was a bit of a mixed bag. The first guy I worked with was from Vernal, Utah -- a town so small, the ZIP code starts with a decimal point. He was clueless. After about two months, he got transferred away and was replaced by a guy from Logan, Utah. He was equally clueless. On the other hand, a lot of the people I worked with were pretty nice, and the locals treated us well. I actually learned to enjoy it there, and made some friends. It was hard to leave.

After four months in Nürnberg, I got shipped off to Ingolstadt an der Donau, another tiny little town. We actually lived a little ways out of town, and it was mid-September by the time I got there, so it was already starting to get quite chilly. On the plus side, the guy I was assigned to work with was from San Jose, so he at least had a clue or two. Very refreshing. By this time, I was skilled enough in the language that I was having no problems.

For some time, I had been considering how I might locate the rest of my father's family. I knew he had lived in Falkenstein im Vogtland, which at that time (1973) was part of the DDR. But I had no idea of what had happened to the rest of the family. Finally, one day I simply wrote a short letter to the family, introducing myself. I mentioned that the only other relative's name I knew was my Dad's brother Hellmuth. I mailed the letter to the last known address in Falkenstein and waited. And hoped.

Sometime later, we came home one Monday afternoon and the hausfrau told me I had some mail. It was a letter and a postcard. The letter was from my cousin, Annerose Christine (Jahn) Kratzer. The had moved from the old house in Oelsnitzerstraße to an apartment above a factory in Dorfstädterstraße. Since the letter had come from western Germany and not the US, the post office forwarded it to her. More on her in a minute.

The postcard was from my Uncle Hellmuth. He had escaped thru Berlin just two weeks before The Wall went up in August, 1961. The plan was to send for the rest of the family, but the border was sealed before he could do it. Left behind were his wife Gertrud, their daughter Christine, and her family -- husband Erwin and daughter Kathrin. Because they were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, keeping in touch with them would prove to be problematic over the years. But for the rest of my stay, I was able to keep in touch with Uncle Hellmuth quite easily.

The postcard intrigued me, as Uncle H. was living in Derching über Augsburg, which was not very far away. On Saturday, he drove up to visit. We came home for lunch, and our hausfrau met us at the door saying "You have a visitor". The visit was short, but left me in awe. Uncle Hellmuth was just the kind of person I had imagined him to be. He was still employed, despite ill health and the loss of a leg in the war.

Shortly before Christmas, I was transferred up to Landsberg am Lech, a hilly little mountain town with no public transportation to speak of. The way we got around was walking. Fortunately, the small size of the town made this rather easy. We also worked over in Kaufbeuren, which led to a couple of the funnier things that happened to us. One afternoon, somewhat exhausted from all the back-and-forth travel, we walked into the train station. I walked up to the counter and requested "two one-way tickets to Kaufbeuren". The guy just stood there, staring at me. I'm thinking to myself "What's wrong with this guy? I asked for two one-way tickets to....." Oopsie! I had gotten so turned around by all the travel that I forgot I was in Kaufbeuren and wanted to go back to Landsberg.

The trip between the two towns always involved a change of trains in Kaufering. It was usually a short stop, so we never had long to wait. Now, the trains in Germany are easy to track, as they have a large placard on the side that shows where they came from and where they're going. Traveling from Landsberg to Kaufbeuren, one changes to the southbound train from München. The return trip necessitates changing to the northbound train to München.

One evening, we were were in Kaufbeuren, waiting for the train to take us to Kaufering. We walked out to the track, and there sat the train with "München" written on the side. We got in and settled into our seats for a brief nap during the ride down to Kaufering. We heard the conductor's whistle and the slam of the doors closing and the train lurched..... southward. It only took a moment for the horror of our mistake to hit me, but by then it was too late. The train was already underway and there was no escape. Fortunately, I knew that this train stopped in Kempten, where two of our colleagues lived.

When the conductor came thru, I explained our situation and paid for a one-way ticket to Kempten. I would have to buy another one-way ticket back to Kaufbeuren the next day, but the ticket I already had for Landsberg would still be valid. You can probably imagine the looks on our colleagues' faces when they opened their door to find us on their doorstep ("Hi, guys...!"). Needless to say, they had a good laugh at our expense.

After three months in Landsberg, I wound up in München for the third time. There must be something to the old saying "The third time's a charm", because this time, I found myself actually enjoying the place. I arrived in late February or early March, and stayed through late June. In the good weather, München is actually a nice place. We got around on the public transportation, plus a lot of walking. I was working in Schwabing, the same as the first time I had been there, but in a slightly different part. If memory serves me correctly, the first time I was there, I was more in Sendlinger Tor, but since it was only two weeks, I can't be sure.

Our apartment was near the university and not far from Englischer Garten, which is a popular picnic site. We had a lot of interesting adventures in München, not the least of which was talking with a French family who spoke very little German and no English. At one point in our conversation, the woman asked us if either of us spoke French. Knowing from prior conversations that I had taken three years of French in high school (of which I remember nothing), my companion says to her "He does", pointing at me. I'm thinking to myself "I do?" when this woman asks me the longest question I've ever been asked in my life. Something told me to answer in the affirmative, so I did. She seemed satisfied with my answer, and I felt right about it. Hopefully, in the next life, I'll find out what in the world it was that she asked me.

Oddly enough, as much as I enjoyed my four months in München, I don't really remember many particulars of it. By late June, I was out in Burghausen an der Salzach, on the Austrian border. At first, I was working with a Hollander from Groningen. He had a very wry and subtle sense of humor and was a very humble soul. I really hated to see him get transferred away. His replacement was a German from Bottrop, near Essen. We had worked in the same area in München, but had never actually worked together.

In Burghausen, all travel was by bicycle, and I was getting pretty good at it. I had re-geared my rear sprocket so that I could actually accelerate going downhill. Going uphill was a bit of a challenge, but I had no real problems. We had some real adventures there in Burghausen. The weather was really strange. One afternoon, we were headed over to Burgkirchen, about six miles away. All of a sudden, a thunderstorm blew up. We had been watching a balloonist trying to land, when he was suddenly blown down and into a farmhouse. We pulled off the road to help, but by the time we got to the farmhouse, other people had arrived and had things well in hand. He had actually hit a tree first, then the edge of the farmhouse. Jangled nerves appeared to be the only injury.

Making our way back out to the blacktop, we noticed we were about to really get hit with the storm. As fast as we could, we peddled back toward Burghausen, but it was too late. An elderly woman lived on the edge of town, and her place was always a safe haven. Even she couldn't suppress a laugh at us "orphans of the storm". When the storm abated, we made our way home and changed into dry clothes. I do remember that I was wearing my dark brown pin-striped suit -- my "rain suit". I doubt I ever wore that suit without getting rained on.

On another occasion, we were scheduled to travel up to Traunstein to meet with our colleagues there. My companion kept telling me how "easy" it would be to ride our bikes up there, but something kept nagging at me. Finally, on the evening we were supposed to go, I put my foot down and said we'd go on the train. The next morning dawned bright and clear, with only a few wisps of cloud in the sky. We boarded the train for the ride up to Traunstein. It couldn't have been more than an hour later when the clouds rolled in. The skies opened up and I saw more rain than I had seen in years. We learned later that it was the worst storm to hit that area in 20 years or so. Hail tore down barns, destroyed crops, and even killed cattle. As our train rounded a small hill, the hill came loose and slid down toward the little train. A tree even slid down toward us! Some of the mud hit the tracks, causing the last car of the short train to de-rail.

Everyone got out and looked the situation over. Finally, the engineers decided to move everything into the forward cars, uncouple the last car and leave it there. It was the only time in two years that I ever saw a train late. We got to Traunstein over an hour and a half late and walked over to our colleagues' apartment. They had been at the train station to meet us, and when the train didn't arrive, the figured we weren't coming and went home. The next morning, as we were preparing to return to Burghausen, my companion said "I'll never doubt your judgement again". I just smiled. But I never forgot the lesson -- always trust your instincts.

With one week left to go, I got transferred back to München. At first, I thought it was a joke and called the office. No joke; they figured I could do some good while I was there. Little did they know. We lived with a very nice family, but I learned years later that they were thinking of kicking us out, because some of the guys who had lived there had been less than ideal. About the second day I was there, I posted a list of "rules of the roost". After that, things improved dramatically. It was very gratifying to learn of this years later. They were a really nice family to live with.

On my last evening, they had us up for dinner, and Uncle Hellmuth joined us. The next day, he picked me up from the office and took me to the airport. Sadly, although we corresponded off and on for the next 12 years, it was the last time I saw him alive.

Our itinerary included a 24-hour stop in London, which was just barely enough time to see a bit of the city before boarding a plane for New York, where we went our separate ways. Somewhere, I have a photograph of us in the airport. I'll have to dig it out sometime, scan it in, and post it on my Web site.



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