Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Donna Martin The X Man graduates!

The translation from Italian is "We present Xavier Thibodeau...Xavier is promoted!". Of course she pronounced his last name wrong (Tee-bo)...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The X Man graduates today...sort of.

Tonight is a big night in the X Man's academic career. Tonight he graduates from the scuola materna. However, in typical Italian fashion, all is not as it would seem; the graduation is tonight but apparently the school year ends on June 30th. So even though he'll receive his diploma tonight, he will still be in school for another month. So why would the school do the graduation and hand out the diplomas a month early you ask? is Italy afterall...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Peppy and Nana are here!

Grammy was here last week and now it's Peppy and Nana's turn...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Quick update on the Thibs...

So Grammy was here visiting last week, it was the first time she had seen Luca and she had a great time with him and Xavier. She left Saturday morning and now my father and his wife Nancy are coming to visit. They arrive tomorrow morning and will be here for about 10 days. Grammy didn't want to do any traveling, she preferred to stay at home and spend every minute with her two grandchildren so I didn't take any leave. My father and his wife, on the other hand, will be visiting us in Italy for the first time so I will be taking leave the whole time they are here as we're planning on showing them around a bit. So far I've got trips planned for Venice, Bologna, Verona, Bassano del Grappa/Marostica and a few others. My dad really likes red wine and is expecting me to introduce him to some of the best stuff while he's here so I'll be dipping into my collection and opening up a Brunello or two, perhaps even one of my prized 2003 Marchesi di Barolo's. His wife Nancy is big into photography so she will probably go crazy with all the beautiful views here. We might even have to do more than one day in Venice.

Anyway, I'll try to post pics in the coming weeks of our travels...

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Dancing Lessons From God", Part 20

Looking back, I really enjoyed Head Start. It’s one thing that the army does really well for its soldiers overseas, helping them get acclimated and acquainted with their new country. Many soldiers take it for granted that they get to and live in Europe for a couple years on the government’s nickel but not me. I was in for the whole deal, as much as I could possibly suck out of the experience. As much as I hated the life I had before I joined the army and came to Europe, I’ve often thought that my constant failures and lack of direction were the best things that could have happened to me because they made me appreciate my new life and opportunities that much more. Compared to my old life, my new life was fun and exciting, there was no routine, there was always something to do, something new to learn, something new to experience and discover, some new adventure to be had. Things weren’t always easy or fun but one thing was for sure; they never got boring. After the life that I had come from, that was the best thing I could have asked for. And so, while most of the people in my class treated Head Start like it was nothing more than some high school course that they were forced to attend in order to graduate, I viewed it as an initiation into a new life.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Dancing Lessons From God", Part 19

Head Start

While I was getting to know life in the barracks pretty well, I still hadn’t even started my job because I was still inprocessing. So while I would hang out with the guys in the evening or on weekends, my days were spent in Head Start with the people I had arrived to Germany with. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed Head Start. I had come to Europe because I wanted to experience different cultures. I actually wanted to do more than experience them; I wanted to engross myself in them, learn some of the local languages and customs, find out what made them different than what I grew up with. Most people back home were content to take a two week vacation and consider that traveling. Not me. I wasn’t satisfied with a couple weeks in a foreign place, I wanted more. What can you really learn in two weeks? Sure, you can go and look at a lot of famous monuments and statues and museums and such but you’re just seeing things that millions of other people in the world have already seen. Then you’ll go home and show people pictures of your vacation and all the cool stuff you saw but deep inside you’ll still be the same person. That’s why, despite being able to take a few trips to places like Montreal or Las Vegas, I was so unhappy back home. I just knew that I would never be satisfied by a yearly vacation somewhere because when I traveled I found myself more interested in meeting and talking with the local people than going to see the usual tourist attractions. I was in Germany now and I couldn’t wait to start traveling around and exploring my new country but first I wanted to learn some basic things that would make it easier to get around. Before we got to Head Start, there was a ton of other inprocessing activities that had to be completed. These included things like going to the Central Issuing Facility (CIF) to get issued all your army gear. All your uniforms and military clothing get issued when you first come in and you take them with you as you move around but all your army gear belongs to the army. It gets issued to you when you arrive and when you leave you have to clean it and turn it all in. If anything is missing or in unserviceable condition, you have to pay for it. I got in line with my shopping cart and waited for my turn. When it came I stepped up to the counter and watched them fill my cart with things like a flak vest, a Kevlar helmet, a couple of canteens, cold weather boots, laundry bags, a sleeping bag, a pistol belt, a load bearing vest to carry your ammunition, a chemical suit, all kinds of Rambo type stuff. We also had to go to all the different offices on base and get a briefing for each one. We had to go to the education center so they could brief us on what education benefits we were entitled to while on active duty. We got briefed on what our medical benefits were and where all the medical and dental clinics were. Then there was the drivers testing. For those of us who were new to Europe, we had to sit though a very long class and learn about the rules of driving in Germany and Europe. The driving laws in Europe are very different than in the US and if we wanted to be able to drive there, we would have to pass the written German drivers test. I found out that there a lot of things different about driving in Germany such as, they have the “good Samaritan” law which mandates that if you are the first person on the scene of an accident you are required by law to render first aid to anyone who needs it until the paramedics arrive. You are also required to carry a first aid kit and warning triangles in your vehicle at all times. If you don’t have these items in your vehicle during inspection, your vehicle will fail. For the written test, you have to learn all the German road signs as well. This is difficult for a lot of people because they are obviously all in German. I didn’t have much of a problem with the test and passed it on the first try although several people in my class failed on their first try. I didn’t own a vehicle and had no intention of buying one while I was in Germany since all my money would be used for traveling but I did want to have my license in case I ever needed to drive anywhere. Besides, most of the units required you to get your license, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to drive your military vehicle. What you receive when you pass the test is called your USAREUR (US Army Europe) license, which although technically not a German driving license, acts as a permit to drive legally in Germany. Most other European countries recognize it as a valid driving license as well. With all the briefings and other nonsense finished, it was time for Head Start. Our Head Start instructor was a local German woman named Frau Winkler. In German, the letter W is pronounced as a V so her name was pronounced “Vinkler”. She was in her late 50’s and had been teaching Head Start for years so her English was pretty good. We each had to write our name on a little card and tape it to our desk so she could call us by our first names and if any of us had a name that had a German translation we had to use that. So if someone’s name was Fred, he would have to write “Freidrich” on his card. Although I usually go by Rik, my full name is Richard so for the duration of Head Start I became known as “Ricard”. We spent day after day learning things like how to count in German, how to ask directions in German, how to order food in German, how to say the days of the week in German, how to greet people in German, how to make phone calls to and from Germany. We learned all about the Deutschmark (DM), which was the currency used in Germany at the time. We learned a little bit about our city, Kitzingen, during which I found out the interesting history behind the strange tower with the crooked top I’d seen downtown. Frau Winkler told us that, although the truth is probably that faulty engineering is responsible for the crooked top part, the locals have, over the years, invented a few more colorful explanations. My favorite was this; Kitzingen has always been a big wine town and during the time when they were building the tower, there was a severe drought. Because of the drought, there was no water to use to mix the cement so they were forced to use the wine instead to finish the top part, which explains why it leaned – because it was drunk. It was this kind of local flavor that I loved. We learned about the kinds of food that were typical in Germany like schnitzel and bratwurst. We also learned how to use the German train system, the Deutsche Bahn. This part especially interested me as I planned on using the train A LOT. I’d never taken a train before but I’d ridden the subway often in a few different cities so I figured it wouldn’t be too different. Of course, it is much different but I was determined to learn.

An interesting thing I learned in Head Start is that German is the language that is most closely related to English. I found this hard to believe, especially when you walk around and see words like “Spielwarengeschaft” and “Einzelzimmer” but apparently English has many of its roots in the German language. Several words bear this out such as “grun” (green), “nummer” (number), and “gut” (good). Although obvious to seemingly everyone but me, I never had considered that the word “kindergarten” is a combination of two German words; “kinder”, meaning child, and “garten”, meaning garden. So the word kindergarten actually refers to a garden where children grow and learn. This was the kind of stuff that fascinated me, why I wanted to come live in a foreign country. I probably could have learned a lot of it by taking a German language course back home but learning it while actually living in Germany was so much more enjoyable. Plus, the best thing about learning the language and customs of a foreign country is being able to put them to use. For example, one of the things I learned in Head Start was that, in Germany (and most of Europe) when you go to the market to buy fruit, you are not supposed to actually handle the fruit before you buy it. This is contrary to how it’s done in the US, where you pick up the fruit and inspect it until you find a piece that meets your quality standards. In Germany, you must point to the fruit you want and then the owner of the fruit stand will pick up the fruit and bag it for you. This has always baffled me as I have often bought fruit that I would not have picked out had I been allowed to inspect it myself. As you can imagine, this has caused problems for a lot of Americans who are used to picking out their own fruit. Many of them will ignore the custom and start handling the fruit which always leads to the owner yelling at them. There are a lot of customs like this that we, as Americans, don’t agree with or can’t make sense out of. And though I don’t always like them I do always try to respect them because it’s not my country. After all, if a foreigner went to the US, I would expect them to obey the laws and customs there whether or not he disagreed with them. And speaking of strange customs or laws, here is another one that I learned which always made me chuckle; let’s say you’re driving a tank through the German countryside and you lose control and go off the road into a farmer’s field and wipe out a portion of his crops. Not only will you have to pay for the crops that you ruined but you may also have to pay him for any future crops that would have grown on the land you ruined. Or, if you’re driving and you run over the farmer’s chicken by accident, not only will you have to pay for that chicken, but you will also have to pay for all the chickens that that chicken would have had. And perhaps even all the chickens that those chickens would have had. I’ve never actually seen the law so I can’t verify it but several Germans have told me that this is true. One story that certainly isn’t true but that has been told for years is that Dracula is buried in Kitzingen. There is a graveyard in downtown Kitzingen that has a very unique grave in it, although it looks like more of a shrine than a tomb. There are carvings of skulls on it as well as paintings of demons and hellfire and all kinds of other evil looking decorations. According to Frau Winkler, the grave site has been there for many years and nobody is really sure who is buried there. After World War II, when the Americans arrived, it became sort of a joke to the locals to tell them that the grave was actually that of Count Dracula himself. The skulls, demons and all around evil look of it, combined with the gullibility of some American soldiers gave the rumor a life of its own apparently and many people have actually passed the story along as being real. Regardless, it is one creepy looking grave.

(Stay tuned for Part 20...)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Luca is 1 year old today

Happy birthday little man.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Dancing Lessons From God", Part 18

The military used to have an NCO club and an Officer club on pretty much every post but for the most part, they didn’t really exist anymore. Every post had a club but it was open to anyone and rather than call it the NCO club, it had a name, usually something sports related. Ours was called The End Zone but most people just called it the NCO club. They had different themes to try and please the variety of soldiers on base and Friday night was always country night. Country night was extremely popular and always had a good mix of Americans and Germans, most of the latter being of the female persuasion. Well I liked this concept right away. This was the kind of thing I had signed up for. I had always seen military movies where they go to the NCO or Officers club on base and mingle with foreign women who were there to meet American men; and now I was one of those men. I was liking Germany more and more. The first thing I realized when I entered the club was that I really needed to update my wardrobe. The only civilian clothes I had brought with me were a few things that would fit in my duffle bag and that wasn’t much. The second thing I noticed was that there were a lot of rednecks on the base and they were all in the club. The place was filled with people in starched shirts, dinner platter sized belt buckles, cowboy hats and cowboy boots. The DJ had country tunes blasting on the speakers. The whole entire place was like one big cliché of what many think of when they think of military people; white, southern, and very patriotic. I chuckled when the DJ played the song “Sweet Home Alabama”; as soon as the first few chords were heard, a bunch of guys would jump out of their seat and start high-fiving each other and yelling yee-haw. As for us, we just kind of hung around, some of us at the bar, some of us at a table. Falcon was sitting at the table, drunk and holding court once again with some of the guys and a few women who had joined the party. He was really in his element there. Though from Louisiana, he didn’t look or act like a redneck when he went to the club. I spent the night taking in the scene, observing and analyzing my new social surroundings. The End Zone was a huge club and I walked around, beer in hand, checking out everything. In addition to the main part which contained the dance floor, they also had a couple pool tables, video games, and some televisions, including one huge screen used to show sports or other testosterone laden programs. On this night, they were showing “Wrestlemania” and there were a half dozen guys standing in front watching it who would just go crazy every time something happened, as if they’d never seen anything so amazing. It was quite amusing. I’d certainly watched my share of wrestling but these guys were just taking it to a whole new level. I still kind of felt like an outsider so I didn’t bother trying to chat up any women or anything so bold as that. I just kind of enjoyed being there at that moment, experiencing a scene that we had nothing even remotely close to back home. I loved every minute of it. Around midnight some of us decided to leave so we walked out and as I walked through the parking lot a half drunk German girl approached me. Almost as if on cue, the other guys I was with said “see you back at the barracks Thib!” and hastily took off, leaving me alone with this girl. She didn’t waste any time making conversation either, she came right out and said in her broken American accent “I am drunk and I cannot drive…you can drive me home?”. Well, I might have taken her up on the offer were it not for two problems; one, I was drunk myself and two, I had no car and no license. When I informed her of these unfortunate facts she frowned a little, bade me farewell and went off in search of some other soul to bring her home that night. “Man,” I thought myself, “this is one crazy place…”

Never having been on active duty before I had no idea what the day to day life or the weekends were like but now that I was starting to learn, I liked it a lot. I loved the fact that I had no responsibilities, nothing hanging over me like a dark cloud. Everything was just fun and new. It was like starting life all over again. The next morning a few of us headed out to the chow hall for some breakfast. We were very lucky because the chow hall was located across the parking lot from our barracks so it was a very short walk. The chow hall was one of my favorite parts of my new military life. Back home, neither I nor any of my roommates knew how to cook so I lived off sandwiches and canned or frozen food. If I couldn’t slap it between two slices of bread or heat it up in the microwave, I couldn’t eat it. But now I had a place right next to me where I could get three square meals a day, totally free of charge. In military parlance, a chow hall is called a “dining facility”, or DFAC for short. It’s a time honored tradition in the military to joke about how bad the food is but I’ve gotta tell you, I thought the food was really good. There were two sides to the DFAC; one side was short order and the other was the main line. On the short order side you could get your fill of greasy spoon type stuff like burgers, fries, fried chicken, things like that. The main line side was the healthier stuff. They always had a pretty good variety to suit most tastes. I was still trying to get myself into army shape so I always eschewed the short order line for the main line and stuck to things like baked chicken, rice and vegetables. Breakfast however was a whole different ballgame. Where I was from, breakfast usually consisted of some kind of austere combination such as coffee and a bagel. We are always on the go and don’t have time to sit down for a home cooked breakfast. The breakfast served in the DFAC contains pretty much everything you can imagine. Eggs and omelettes made to order, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, grits, pancakes, it’s all there. They also had lighter fare such as bagels, cereal, fruit and yogurt. For someone who had survived on Ramen, sandwiches and Chef Boyardee for the past five years, this was paradise.

The next afternoon I realized that I just could not survive without a television any longer so I headed up to our little PX to buy one. The term PX refers to the Post Exchange. It’s basically a military department store and the size and selection vary depending on the size of the base and the military community which it serves. Kitzingen is small and Larson Barracks is very small so ours was tiny and had a limited selection of stuff. Next to the PX is the shoppette. The shoppette is basically the military’s version of a convenience store. It usually contains a video rental area and sometimes a small bookstore with books and magazines. Barnes and Noble it’s not but at least it’s possible to get American books and magazines overseas. I settled on a 29 inch Panasonic TV, a cheap VCR – this was still 1998 remember, and DVD’s were nonexistent – and then was dismayed to find that I also needed to buy a transformer for them. Anyone who has been overseas is familiar with transformers. In the US, the electricity runs at 110 volts but in Europe and elsewhere it runs at 220 volts. So if you plugged your American item into an outlet in Europe, it would blow up. What a transformer does is converts the 220 power into 110 so you can still use your American appliances overseas. Transformers can be expensive though, with a medium size one running upwards of around 100 bucks or more. I bought one that would be powerful enough to run my TV and VCR on and it costs 120 bucks, more than I paid for the damned VCR. But I was going to need something to keep me occupied in the room so I wouldn’t have to deal with Roberts’ shenanigans so I had no choice. The only problem I faced was that our room was pretty small and there wasn’t much space to put everything. As it was I only had two large wall lockers in which to keep everything that I owned and one of those wall lockers was for all my military related clothing and items. That meant that all my personal belongings had to fit inside one wall locker. I also had one small end table that sat at the end of my bed so I put the TV and VCR on top of it so that I could just lay in bed and watch TV. The barracks rooms were not that big and were designed to house two soldiers each. In them were four wall lockers, two for each soldier, two beds, two small end tables, a desk, a small refrigerator, and a bathroom. What you would do is try to arrange everything to get the maximum amount of space and, in most cases, try to create some privacy for both of you. The way Roberts and I had it, our beds were separated by the wall lockers, each of us had a little private area with just barely enough room to move around, and there was sort of a small little common area with a couch. The desk was supposed to be for writing or doing work but Roberts had put it in front of the couch and stacked his TV, VCR and stereo on it. He said it was for both of us and I would sometimes sit on the couch and read but I never felt comfortable since it was all his stuff and even though it was my room too, I always felt like I was an unwelcome guest. In a way it was strange because, technically, I outranked Roberts. I was an E4 (Specialist) and he was an E3 (Private First Class or “PFC”). However, in the army, there is usually little to no formality between ranks below E5 (Sergeant). The army likes to pretend there is but the reality is often different. In the army’s view I, as the senior ranking person, should have been in charge of the room. But in reality I had no real authority or power at all and Roberts knew it so in the absence of such authority I just kind of let him do his thing and I kept to myself most of the time. Once I got my TV and VCR I usually spent all of my time in the room on my bed watching TV or reading, since my bed was in an enclosed little area that afforded me some measure of privacy, however small. Often I would get a bit stir crazy in my little space and would go down and hang out in Hanover or Falcon’s room with the other guys. Hanover and Falcon lived on the first floor and both had their own rooms. Hanover was an NCO, and NCO’s got their own room. Falcon was an E4 like me but got his own room because he had seniority. I was so jealous of them and longed for the day when I wouldn’t have to share such a small living space with anyone. But both of them were cool enough to make their rooms open to any of us to come down and hang out anytime. After work we’d usually hang out in Falcon’s room watching a movie or TV. TV in the barracks was pretty interesting. All the rooms had cable hookups and we received AFN free. AFN is Armed Forces Network. At the time there were three or four channels showing all sorts of American programs. AFN showed most of the same shows that were being shown in the US but they showed them a season behind. It’s a pretty interesting arrangement; the production studios sell the shows to AFN at an extremely low cost so that military members overseas can watch American TV shows but the cut rate bargain AFN receives comes with two conditions; first, they get last season’s episodes and second, they are not allowed to profit on the programs by selling ad space. This means that there are no commercials. Actually, there are commercials but they are not advertisements for commercial products and services. Instead AFN fills the ad time with public service announcements and ads for military related things. For example, instead of an ad for a new car AFN would show a 30 second spot on something like how to dress in your new country or who to call if you have a gambling problem. Most of them are extremely cheesy and making fun of AFN commercials is another one of those infamous time honored military traditions. The funny thing was that I was able to watch some of the same shows I had watched back home but because they were a season behind I had the advantage of having already seen them so sometimes we’d be in Falcon’s room watching something and I’d be “predicting” everything before it happened.

(Stay tuned for Part 19...)

Friday, May 08, 2009

"Dancing Lessons From God", Part 17

Life in the Barracks

It was still early in the afternoon and I had no idea what I was going to do for the rest of the day since I didn’t know anybody so on my way back to the barracks I stopped at the library to get some books. Due to all the time I’d spent in Barnes and Noble before joining the army, reading all sorts of books had developed into my preferred manner of killing time. But, in reality, I wasn’t much of a reader. As I looked around and tried to figure out what kind of books might keep me busy, an interesting thought occurred to me. I’d been there about a week and based on my experiences thus far, I was worried that I was living in a culture vacuum. All the guys in my section, my roommate, and pretty much everyone else I’d met seemed to only care about getting drunk, getting into fights, discussing various parts of the female anatomy, showing off how tough they were, and generally all manner of caveman type activities. Now I was all for drinking and female companionship but where I was from we never sat around and talked about it constantly. So I was kind of worried about how I would get along with the guys in the barracks. I wanted to fit in but I didn’t want to become just like them. With that in mind I decided to borrow some books that not only interested me but that would challenge my mind a bit. This, I thought, would keep me from becoming a caveman myself.

I got my books and headed back to the barracks where a bunch of the guys were hanging around outside. In front of our barracks was a little barbeque area with a big stone grill. On the weekends a lot of the guys would get a bunch of beer and meat and continue the age old American tradition of grilling and getting drunk on watery beer. I hadn’t really talked to any of them since I was still in Head Start and none of them were particularly welcoming so I just walked into the barracks without even looking at them, although a big part of me really wanted to join them. As I was walking in SGT Hanover yelled over to me and told me to hang on. He walked over, beer in hand, and asked what I was up to and I said “nothing much, spent the morning walking around downtown and now I got some books so I figured I’d just go up to the room and do some reading.” Hanover looked down at the stack of books I was holding and asked to see what I was reading. He looked at the book on top – a collection of poems by Robert Frost – and got a confused look on his face, then a half-smile. “Goddamn Thibodeau, what are you some kind of scholar?!” I laughed and made a joke about wanting to keep my mind sharp and then his face took on its familiar solemn look and he kind of looked a bit uncomfortable in this semi-social situation. “Well, we’re just drinking some beers and cooking some food….you can join us if you want…” I said thanks and that I’d come down after putting my stuff away.

Well, this was it, I was finally about to hang out with the guys. I was actually pretty nervous, like I was the new kid at school who was being invited to a party for the first time where you didn’t really know anybody. I had never been a very outgoing person and didn’t make friends very easily so I was probably more uncomfortable than anything. These were people that I had no experience hanging out with. Even in the reserves most of the people I knew were college students or people with families. I didn’t have much “caveman” in me so I wasn’t sure I’d fit in very well because I had no intention of changing my personality just to be one of the guys. As it turned out, most of them were pretty cool. Of course it helped that they had been drinking for a while and were a bit friendlier than they might have been otherwise. What I didn’t realize at the time was that in the military, people are constantly coming and going. People leave, new people arrive. So being the new guy wasn’t really any big deal. To them, everything was the same except that there was a new person around. To me, I was the same but the entire world around me was new.

It was obvious to everyone right away that the new guy wasn’t just new, he was different. Hanover had told everyone about my eclectic selection of reading material, that was the first clue. The second was my taste in beer. Over the years my taste in beer had evolved quite a bit. When I was in college I drank the cheapest stuff I could get because I couldn’t afford anything else. It was about getting drunk for the least amount of money, no matter how nasty the beer tasted, so I drank stuff like Keystone and Milwaukee’s Best. When I graduated and started working I started buying slightly better beer. My roommates drank Sam Adams but I didn’t like it at first. I wasn’t used to drinking beer with actual flavor. Eventually I took to it and when I did, most domestic American beer started tasting horrible to me. Pretty soon there was an explosion in the popularity of microbreweries and the focus was on craft beers and specialty beers with unique and complex tastes. Then, sometime in the mid-nineties, I discovered Guinness stout which has been my brew of choice ever since. So there I was surrounded by a bunch of people who were all drinking Budweiser, Bud Light and Miller Genuine Draft. I didn’t want to seem like a snob but I just could not stomach the stuff. And I also could not, for the life of me, understand why these people were drinking this stuff when they were in a country known, above all, for its world class beer. It was incomprehensible to me. I made polite conversation with a few of them but most of the conversation was dominated by Falcon who was in his element and holding court. He was buzzing pretty well and was as loud and obnoxious as ever. But his stories were amusing and most of us just sat there while he loudly and animatedly told them. After an hour or so, Martinez drove up and joined the party. Martinez was married and lived off base but from what I could tell, his home life wasn’t very pleasant as he spent most of his time in the barracks hanging out with us. After a while I could not take the beer selection any longer and asked if anyone wanted to go to the shoppette with me to get something else. Martinez offered to drive me up which was cool because it gave me a chance to get to know him a little bit. He turned out to be a really good guy, easy going and likeable. We got to the shoppette and walked into the beer cooler and to my great astonishment they had Murphy’s Irish Stout in the big “widget” bottles. A widget bottle was a bottle with a little plastic widget that, when the bottle was opened, released some kind of gas used in the beer you get on draft in a bar. This is supposed to make the beer tastes similar to what you would get on draft rather than in a bottle and as such, the beer was supposed to be drunk out of a glass. Well I don’t have to tell you that I was in heaven and bought a case, along with a big glass to drink it out of. We got back to the bbq and everyone looked at the beer I’d bought with astonishment, as if they’d never seen dark beer in a bottle before. The looks on their faces when I poured it were just priceless, as if I were drinking some kind of beer from the future. It didn’t take Falcon long to chime in – “What the hell is that? Is that motor oil?!”

Pretty soon a guy named Garnett strolled over and joined us. Garnett was an Irish guy from New York City so we started talking and it felt great to talk to a fellow “Yankee”. There was some initial tension between us because he was from New York and I was from near Boston, which meant he was a Yankee fan and I was a Red Sox fan but it soon passed and we realized that we had quite a bit in common. He was especially impressed when I told him about how we used to hang out in the Irish pubs a lot back home and that I knew a lot of Irish drinking songs. He also loved how I pronounced his name with my Boston accent – “Gah-net”. Garnett also had some kind of problem with his right eye, which had some kind of red blood splotch in it; it was obvious that he’d been in a fight recently. I offered him a Murphy’s and he declined, opting instead for a Budweiser. I jokingly gave him a hard time for that – “you can’t be Irish if you prefer a Bud over a Murphy’s!”, but he didn’t seem to mind. Hanover, on the other hand, wanted to try one. He went to his room and got a glass and poured himself one and was surprised to find that he actually liked it. Eventually Falcon asked me for one as well – not because he wanted to try it but because he had run out of Budweiser. And in keeping with his character, he drank it right out of the bottle. “It tastes like motor oil!” he kept yelling, but he finished the whole bottle. The next morning he even complained that it had turned his shit black. The rest of the day was pretty much the same but it was great because it was a perfect opportunity to meet most of the guys in the barracks that hung out together and that I would likely be spending most of my free time with. Two of these were Britt and Johns, a couple of mechanics who shared a room on the floor below me. Gerald Britt was a redneck from North Carolina and Patrick Johns was a gentle giant from Wyoming. I call him a gentle giant because he was probably the biggest guy in the company, around 6’5 or 6’6 and built pretty solid, and someone who you would not want to get into a fight with. However he had a very calm demeanor and never started trouble with anyone. Britt was a lot smaller and could be hyper at times but I liked him right away as well. As the day turned into night somebody mentioned going to the NCO club.

(Stay tuned for Part 18...)

Thursday, May 07, 2009

"Dancing Lessons From God", Part 16.


I was really lucky to arrive in Germany when I did because it was May and the weather was absolutely gorgeous. Every day was nice and sunny. The normal working schedule gave you weekends off which I always took advantage of. My first weekend there I decided I would do some exploring, and what better place to start than Kitzingen, the town that would be my home for the next two years? I got up early and headed out the front gate. I had no idea whether to go left or right once I got outside of the gate so I decided on left. Kitzingen is a small city of about 20,000 located right on the Main River. There were two small bases in Kitzingen – Harvey Barracks and Larson Barracks – which were located on opposite sides of the city. Larson, where I was stationed, was on a high hill overlooking the eastern part of the city and the surrounding area. The view was impressive and as I walked out of the gate I just could not help standing there, admiring it. I snapped a few photos and continued on. I really didn’t know where I was going so I figured I’d just start walking in the direction that I thought the main part of the city was. It didn’t take long to realize I was headed in the wrong direction as I was on a street with a bunch of houses. There was one house where the family was outside washing their car. At the time the US military members stationed in Europe had license plates on their cars that said “USA” on them and looked different than the host country license plates. So they were obviously American and I got directions from them on how to get downtown. The first thing I ran into was the local soccer field. Man, it was awesome. It was so much nicer and well kept than most of the fields I grew up playing on in the US. I watched some local kids playing for a while then continued on towards the center of town when suddenly there appeared before me a huge, funny looking medieval tower. It wasn’t very fancy, mostly just tall, round, and made of gray brick with a pointy, dark orange top. What made it funny looking was that the top part was crooked. The tower itself was perfectly straight but the pointy part at the top leaned. It was actually pretty amusing to see. I’d always heard stories of the famous “German efficiency” but looking at the tower I surmised that the term must have originated sometime after the middle ages. Kitzingen itself had a slight medieval feel to it. It was obvious that the city was very old and, due to its location right on the river, had probably been part of the wine trade that once dominated the Main River. One thing that really stood out to me were the paintings and illustrations on some of the houses and buildings. I had never seen anything like them and laying eyes on them immediately made me realize that I was indeed in a different country. It was like something you’d see in a history book while you were studying World War II history in school; there were drawings, paintings, and words written in the old German style. There were strange letters we didn’t have in the US, weird things that you couldn’t tell if it was a “B” or an “F” or maybe an “S”? I was loving it. This was the reason I joined the army and came overseas. To learn about other cultures, their languages and customs. And yes, even their alphabet. I hadn’t even started Head Start yet so I knew next to nothing about Germany and its culture. Fortunately I found out rather quick that most Germans speak at least a little bit of English. Many are practically fluent. I figured the main reason was because of the presence of the US and British military bases, which I’m sure had an influence on what the average German learned both in school and in their everyday lives. Whatever the reason, it sure was convenient to someone who had just arrived in country and was trying to find his way around. I found the Germans to be extremely friendly and helpful. The bases in Kitzingen had been there many years and I’m sure the locals had learned to appreciate the American presence there and many of the older folks I met were especially welcoming. The younger generation, who didn’t grow up during the Cold War, didn’t seem to think that the American presence was needed but, at the same time, didn’t really seem to mind that we were there either. In my two years in Germany I can safely say that I never encountered a single German who didn’t like Americans and didn’t make me feel welcome in the country. It helped that from day one I knew how to act in a foreign country. I didn’t dress like a tourist or in a manner that screamed “Look at me, I’m an American!” like others did. I came to Germany with the attitude that I was a guest and should try to act like one. I’ve always respected whatever culture I was living or traveling in, no matter how backwards or wrong I may have thought certain aspects of it were. For just as I wouldn’t take too kindly to someone from another country coming to the US and criticizing everything about it, it would be wrong of me to do the same to anyone else. When you have this kind of attitude, the locals tend to treat you better and are usually much more friendly and helpful. And that makes it so much easier and enjoyable to travel and experience other cultures. You also have to have a sense of humor about things and be able to adapt to various situations.

My first day in Kitzingen was uneventful but it served as a good primer to exploring bigger and better things. There’s not much in Kitzingen for a tourist to see but I enjoyed looking around and taking in the new culture that I would be living in for the next couple years. I stopped at a little coffee shop to get a cappuccino and noticed that the Germans served their cappuccino topped with whipped cream rather than frothed milk. It was one of those little cultural differences that always interested me.

After a couple hours of walking around I figured I’d seen everything and headed back to the base. On the way back I happened to glance down a side street and noticed a little sign jutting out from the second floor of a building halfway down. It read “Sports Bar”. “Well, well, this is exactly what I need!”, I thought to myself. I popped in to check it out and it was empty except for a young German guy watching a car race on the television. The World Cup was rapidly approaching and I needed to make sure that they would be showing the matches. The guy spoke very good English and set my mind at ease by informing me that yes, they would be showing all the matches. So I left and headed back to the base ever more eager to experience a World Cup living in Europe.

The Falterturm in downtown Kitzingen (click to enlarge)

(Stay tuned for Part 17...)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"Dancing Lessons From God", Part 15

We got to the company and Hanover took me in to meet the First Sergeant, 1SG Holmes. 1SG Holmes was instantly intimidating but friendly. He sat at his desk and gave me a quick welcome and told me a little bit about the company and what would be expected of me. Then he asked some questions.

“How old are you?”

“26, First Sergeant.”

“Are you married?

“No, First Sergeant.”

“Any kids?”

“No, First Sergeant.”

“Do you have a college degree?”

“Yes, First Sergeant.”

At this point he looked over at SGT Hanover.

“Damn SGT Hanover, it looks like we found the perfect soldier.”

I can only imagine what SGT Hanover must have been thinking when he heard that. But to his credit he just shook his head and said “Yes, First Sergeant.”. From there it was time to meet the other people in my section that I’d be working with. I was assigned to the Retrans section, which was primarily responsible for setting up radio retransmission stations between two points that were too far away from each other to be able to communicate. Hanover took me into the Retrans office and introduced me to the guys in the section. Nobody was particularly welcoming, instead preferring to portray the tough guy attitude until they had a chance to size up the new guy. But they weren’t that bad. The guy I took notice of right away was a short, stocky, loud, cocky show-off named Falcon. He was a Specialist (E4), same rank that I was, and just seemed to command that all the attention was centered on him as he spoke. He talked like he thought he was black and everybody was laughing at everything that came out of his mouth. Falcon and I would eventually become enemies for several reasons (more about that later) but I have to admit that I really liked him at first. He wasn’t very educated or intelligent - that was painfully obvious - but he sure was entertaining. He was also a gym rat and was pretty muscular for such a small guy and he did pretty well with the ladies – or at least liked to brag that he did. Another guy in the unit was Crenshaw. Crenshaw was an E2 (PV2) when I got to the unit and was always good for comic relief. He was from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, he was overweight and couldn’t seem to decide if he wanted to be a redneck, a beach boy, or a “brother” so he kind of acted like all of them at any given moment. As the lowest ranking soldier, and an overweight one at that, Crenshaw got picked on a lot but he was a good sport about it and usually gave just as good as he received. We also had a Mexican-American guy named SPC Martinez who I liked. He was very friendly and easy to get along with. And then there was SGT Stewart, the other E5 in the shop. SGT Stewart didn’t talk much but he was really laid back and easy going as well. Overall I had a good feeling about the guys I’d be working with. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to say the same about my roommate.

At the end of the day I went back to my room to meet the guy I would be living with for the foreseeable future. His name was PFC Michael Roberts and we had absolutely nothing in common. I was a white guy from a middle class town in New England, he was a black guy from rural South Carolina. This, in itself, was not a problem. After all, my roommate for four years in college was a black guy from the inner city who was there on a basketball scholarship and someone with whom I had nothing in common either. However, we got along really well and actually chose to be roommates each year. Roberts was different. He didn’t seem to like the fact that they’d given him a white roommate who might step on his “game”. From the moment I met him he never stopped trying to show off and he also went to great pains to try and make me realize that this was “his” room first and that he had the run of it. He would often come in and put his music on his stereo and turn it up really loud and then play the same song over and over which got annoying. His favorite song at the time was KJ and JoJo’s “All My Life” which, fortunately for me, I really liked so I didn’t mind hearing it 17 times in a row. Roberts was a mechanic and worked in the motor pool so I figured at least I didn’t have to work with him, I only had to put up with his act in the room. Our first day in the room together didn’t go too smoothly as Roberts set me up for failure immediately. I was brand new and had never been active duty before so I had no idea what the daily routine was. The army has gotten much better at helping new soldiers learn the ropes but at the time I felt like I was flapping in the breeze with no one to show me what the hell I was supposed to be doing and where or when I was supposed to be doing it. I figured I’d just follow Roberts since he’d been there for a while. Well, Roberts decided to oversleep that first morning and then jump out of bed in a panic yelling “Shit, we late, we gotta get to formation!” Following his lead I quickly threw on my PT (physical training) uniform and ran out the door on his heels towards the company area. By the time we ran through the gate into the company area the company was already formed up and the 1SG was preparing the company for PT. Showing up late to formation is a bad thing. Do it once and you’ll usually just get a stern talking to and a warning not to let it happen again. Do it once or twice more and you risk increasingly severe punishment. It was my first day and I was already 0-for-1. After formation, SGT Hanover took me aside and asked why I was late and I just said that I had no idea what the schedule was but now that I knew, it wouldn’t happen again. Hanover also called Roberts over and told him that since I was new, it was his responsibility to make sure that I knew where I supposed to be and what time formation was and that he‘d better not let it happen again. I kind of felt like a child being lectured like that but hey, this was the army, so I just told Hanover I wouldn’t let it happen again and he seemed satisfied with that. I really wanted to make a good first impression and do really well there so I was a bit frustrated at my bad start. But, what the hell, it happens. To his credit, Roberts even apologized and agreed that he screwed up.

Since I had just arrived, it would actually be a couple weeks before I did anything with the company, including PT. New arrivals must spend about 3 weeks going through a reception and integration process. During this process, you fill out a bunch of forms, you get issued all your army gear, you get some drivers training for the purpose of getting your German driving license, you get training on so many different things, and then you go through a two week class called Head Start. Head Start was actually pretty fun. The purpose of the class is to give you an introduction to Germany – the culture, the food, the people, the language, the money (this was before the introduction of the Euro), how to take the trains, how to order food, pretty much everything you need to know to make your stay in Germany fun and easier to deal with. Since my main purpose in joining the army was to see Europe and do some traveling, this was right up my alley. For me, it’s not enough to just take a trip somewhere to look at some stuff and then leave. No, I want to know at least a little bit about the place I’m going and things I’m seeing. And I’m not talking about the usual mundane stuff you learn on a tour, “This church was built by King What’s-his-name in the 16th century and took 30 years to complete…” , I’m talking about the actual culture, the stuff you learn almost by accident when you’re traveling. Head Start was perfect for this because it allowed me to suck up all the information about my new country that I could handle. Unfortunately I seemed to be the only one who had such an interest. Most of the other people were young soldiers fresh out of basic training and their job schools and this was their first duty station. They were too young, inexperienced and naïve to appreciate this glorious opportunity that they had. I was almost resentful of the fact they were even in Europe at all. And the older soldiers who had been around were more interested in getting though the class as quickly as possible and getting to their new jobs. I couldn’t fathom why. To me, this was like a three week vacation, sort of the calm before the storm. US Army Europe had a strict policy that new soldiers who were going through reception and integration were not to be touched by their units for anything. They would go to formation in the morning for accountability, but they would not do PT, they would instead go to the reception station and spend the day doing their inprocessing or Head Start. Units also were not allowed to put new soldiers on any kind of duty until they were finished with their three week inprocessing, including Head Start. There were a few others in my class who were with me at the reception station at Fort Jackson such as Bosh and Stephanie and we kind of hung around together during the inprocessing and Head Start. Both of them were stationed at Giebelstadt so I only saw them during the day which kind of sucked because I didn’t really know anybody on my base. There was a guy from Puerto Rico who had come over from Ft Jackson with us named Rivera who was also stationed at Larson Barracks with me so he and I became friends. Rivera was a master at shining boots and tried to help me several times but shining boots was just one of those things that I’ve never been able to do very well. And not for lack of trying either; I’ve spent countless hours trying all kinds of different methods that people have shown me and have just never been able to get very good at it. I could get them to where they looked pretty good but compared to other people’s, they looked average. It was just one of those things about the military that I thought was given too much importance and was stupid. The thing is, it’s impossible to keep boots shined in the army because you’re working in some really dirty areas doing a dirty job most of the time. It’s just not practical. And what used to drive me crazy was the fact that the people who would always get on you about making sure your boots were shined were the First Sergeants and Sergeants Major. Their boots would always be glowing and they’d tell you that yours should be like theirs. Well of course their boots are always so shiny; they sit at a desk all day! They probably only have to actually shine them once a month! One uniform quirk that I didn’t have as much trouble with was making sure they were neatly pressed. I can’t iron very well but I didn’t have to because there was a laundry on base where you would drop your uniforms off and get them back a few days later, neatly starched and pressed. The funniest thing was that some guys would really overdo it and get them pressed using heavy, heavy starch. Their uniforms would come out like cardboard and make a loud whooshing sound when they walked. It was comical. But I did learn pretty quickly that shined boots and a nicely pressed uniform made you feel as sharp as you looked. It really did fill you with a certain measure of pride and confidence.

(Stay tuned for Part 16...)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

"Dancing Lessons From God", Part 14

“Charlie Rock”

Monday morning rolled around and we went back to the inprocessing building to wait for our assignments. While we were there Stephanie finally arrived and was happy to see some familiar faces. So we waited and waited and eventually were given our orders. Mine said “C Co., 121st Signal Batallion, Kitzingen”. I’d never heard of that unit or that place but by that time I was so anxious to get to my unit and get started on my new life that I didn’t care where it was. I was happy to hear that a few of the other people I’d come over with had received orders either to the same base as me, or ones in the same area, so we all got on the bus marked “Wurzburg” and took a seat. As it turns out, Wurzburg was the home of the 98th Area Support Group which encompassed three main military communities: Wurzburg, home of the 1st Infantry Division; Kitzingen, which was made up of two small bases; and Geibelstadt, which was the home of a Chinook helicopter base nicknamed “Big Windy”. All three places were within about a half hour of each other so everyone stationed at any of them all had to go to the reception station in Kitzingen to do their inprocessing. The bus pulled up and I stepped off, looking around and surveying my new home. My excitement was just off the charts, I couldn’t wait to explore my new surroundings. But first there was the business of filling out more forms, getting an initial welcome brief, and meeting my new unit. They had called all of our respective units while we were filling out the plethora of forms and informed them of our arrival. When we were done, we were released to the hallway outside where our unit representatives were waiting for us. I looked around at all the faces wondering which one I belonged to. I hadn’t known very many active duty army people before so I had no idea what to expect or what they were like.

Most of them were in the hallway yelling out the names they’d been given but I wasn’t hearing my name so I just stood next to my duffle bag and looked around. After a few minutes a sullen, hard-jawed soldier walked up to me and I met the man who would have the biggest influence over me for the next two years.

“Are you Thibodeau?

“Yep, that’s me.”

“I’m SGT Hanover, your NCOIC.”

By the time he left Germany almost two years later, I would consider him a very good friend but my first impression of SGT Hanover was not a good one. He had a pissed-off look on his face that seldom changed. His mannerisms and actions seemed to say that he didn’t want to be bothered with me, that he had better things to do. He had a real tough guy look about him too, a look that commanded respect, even though he was the exact same age as I was. I wasn’t really intimidated by him but I was a bit worried that this guy was not going to be pleasant to work for. His uniform was crisply pressed and his boots were impressively shined. I quickly noticed that SGT Hanover was a man of few words. In fact he seldom said anything unless you asked him a direct question and even then his answers were usually one or two words at best. Some people go to great lengths to try and project a tough guy image but this guy was the real deal. He didn’t even have to try.

With him was a really skinny, scrawny black kid whose uniform hung off him like it was two sizes too big. Hanover introduced me to him as PFC Geathers and told me he was also in our section and we would be working together. Compared to Hanover, Geathers looked like a cartoon and I was privately relieved that not everyone I would be working with was going to be like Hanover. We picked up my bags and Hanover instructed me to follow him. I did so even though he walked so fast that I had trouble keeping up and he led me down to the barracks where we dumped my bags in a small room that wasn’t much bigger than the office that I occupied at the job I’d just quit. I wanted to take it all in but Hanover was moving so fast that I didn’t have time to even check out the room. Apparently the entire battalion was preparing for a big inspection and so everyone was on edge and running around trying to make sure everything was straight. We walked through the barracks and suddenly a larger than life figure appeared before us: Sergeant Major Paul E. Scandrick. SGM Scandrick was the battalion Sergeant Major, which meant he was the highest ranking enlisted (non-officer) in the battalion. He was about 6’3, had an impeccable uniform without a wrinkle on it, and cut an imposing figure. Everyone around seemed to be scared of him but, coming straight out of the civilian world, I hadn’t yet figured out how you were supposed to act around such people. I got a quick indoctrination. SGT Hanover introduced me as his new soldier and SGM Scandrick welcomed me. He was very nice and informal so it never occurred to me that I was an E4 addressing my battalion Sergeant Major which meant that I supposed to be doing so from the position of parade rest. Instead I stood there and addressed him like I was talking with one of my buddies back home, hand gestures and all. I can’t even imagine what must have been going through SGT Hanover’s mind as he watched his new soldier talking to the Sergeant Major in such a manner but he quickly leaned into my ear and whispered “Get at parade rest!”. Within about a millisecond I realized that this was a whole new world I was in. I’d been in the army reserves for 7 years but active duty was different. Hell, one time a Sergeant Major walked into the reserve center and when I yelled “At ease!”, everyone laughed at me, including the Sergeant Major, who then told me “I appreciate it son but we don’t do those kind of things around here…”. Well, I felt pretty stupid but quickly snapped to parade rest and shut up. SGM Scandrick welcomed me once again and then took off down the hall. Looking back, I think I even saw him chuckling as he was walking away. With that, Hanover turned and told me to follow him to the company area so he could introduce me to the First Sergeant. By this point, Hanover had to be wondering to himself “what the hell kind of terrible soldier have they given me?”. It had been about an hour since I first met him and he hadn’t uttered more than about six or seven sentences to me in that time. I was determined not to let him get to me and as we walked I tried to talk to him a bit.

“So how long have you been in Germany?”

“Few months.”

“How do you like it?”

“It fucking sucks.”

“Really? What don’t you like about it?”

“Everything. Fucking lazy ass soldiers, always complaining about working too much or bitching that they had to miss chow. I wish I was back at Bragg, I hate this place.”

Yikes. This was exactly what I was afraid of when I was debating whether or not to join the army. Hanover seemed to be the living personification of everything I feared the army would be like.

(Stay tuned for Part 15...)

Monday, May 04, 2009

"Dancing Lessons From God", Part 13

(NOTE: Since part I, last year, was broken up into 11 parts, I've decided to keep with that numbering sequence for simplicity's sake. Hence the last posting was part 12 and this one is 13)

Landing in Germany was a moment I’ll never forget. We touched down at Rhein-Main Air Base, which shared a runway with the Frankfurt International Airport. The base was small and while most people would call it old and run-down, I called it historic. Rhein Main was the home of the 64th Replacement Station and, as such, was where all military personnel arriving in Europe had to go to do some inprocessing and receive their assignments. It was so named because it sits near the confluence of two major rivers – the Rhine and the Main. As I looked around and saw the big “Gateway to Europe” sign, I couldn’t help but think about all the soldiers who had been there before me and walked the same path. Elvis Presley was once stationed in Germany…had he once walked under that same “Gateway to Europe” sign that I did? There was so much history at that place. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers had served tours in Germany over the years and they had all gone through Rhein-Main. And I was now a part of that history. It gave me goosebumps. We went into the building where they looked at your files and gave you your assignments and sat in the waiting room. I had brought my walkman with me and put my headphones on so I could hear some real German music. Little by little I was starting to notice that things were different. They had rock music on the radio but there were also stations playing “oom-pa-pa” music, like you would hear in a beer hall somewhere in Bavaria. Never heard that before. Even the toilets were different. I was loving my new life so far.

One by one the new people – affectionately referred to as “newbies” – were called and given instructions to get on this bus or that bus which would take them to their new assignments. But for some reason, I and most of the guys I had flown over with weren’t getting called. By the end of the afternoon the short female sergeant who was working the desk told us that our assignments weren’t ready yet and they were closing for the day. Since it was Friday, we were put up in some temporary barracks and told to hang out for the weekend and we would be given our duty stations on Monday. This was quite a pleasant surprise to me because I guess I was half expecting things to be a bit basic training-ish, where you have little to no freedom. My first weekend in Germany and I was on my own to do whatever I wanted. We got settled in our barracks and a couple of the guys made plans to go to the shoppette and get some beer for the evening while others made plans to catch a cab for downtown Frankfurt. Myself, I had other plans. It just so happened that one of my best friends from back home, Steve Lester, was in the Air Force and was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, about an hour south of Rhein-Main. We hadn’t stayed in touch very often in the previous couple years but I called him up and told him that I was at Rhein-Main for the weekend and hoped he might be able to come up. He was excited to hear from me and told me to sit tight, he would be there in an hour to pick me up and he’d show me around a bit and introduce me to a little bit of Germany. As I hung up the phone I became instantly aware of how lucky I was that Steve was in Germany as well. We’d met in high school at my church youth group and became friends immediately. He was an easy guy to like and was fun to hang around with. He’d gone through one year of college at the University of New Hampshire but ended up with piss poor grades, which I never understood because Steve was always really smart. After realizing that he was not college material he enlisted in the Air Force as an Air Traffic Controller and had been to places like Homestead AFB in Miami, McChord AFB in Tacoma, Washington, Turkey, and now Ramstein Air Base in Germany, which was fortunate for me. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Steve and I would be spending a lot of time together during my stay in Germany and the trips and adventures we would share would strengthen our friendship more than I could ever imagine. Steve remains, to this day, my favorite traveling companion. He showed up at the barracks and we figured we’d hit the club for a beer then take in a movie and just catch up a bit. We went to the little club on base and that was where I had my first authentic German beer. For a beer lover like me, it was quite a moment. We went to see “As Good As It Gets” at the theater on base but I was so tired and jet lagged that I actually fell asleep halfway through the movie. Afterwards Steve said “Hey, why don’t you come stay with Erica and I this weekend?”. Erica was his coworker and girlfriend at the time and I figured why not? So we made the drive down to his place which I fell in love with immediately. He lived in a small little village called Thaleischweiler-Frochen and his place was so big and cool that I immediately dubbed it “the bachelor pad”, his relationship with Erica notwithstanding. As it turned out, Erica was on shift that night so he took me to downtown Landstuhl, which is the town that Ramstein is in, and went out for my first German meal. Of course I had to have schnitzel. I’d heard of schnitzel and since I was determined to get everything out of my German experience as possible, it was only fitting that it was my first official German meal. For the uninitiated, schnitzel is basically a breaded pork cutlet. It is served with a variety of different sauces and/or toppings. My favorite is the “jagerschnitzel”, which is a schnitzel served in a brown mushroom gravy sauce. The meal was fantastic. After that, we hit the local Irish Pub and drank Guinness all night until Erica got out of work and picked us up. My first weekend in Germany was turning into exactly what I was hoping for. On Sunday afternoon, Steve and Erica drove me back up to Rhein-Main, which I remember for one main reason. As we drove close to Frankfurt on our way to the base we drove right past the stadium where Frankfurt’s soccer team (Eintracht Frankfurt) played their home games. This was a big deal for me because I had grown up watching the German professional soccer league, the Bundesliga, on Sunday mornings and there I was so many years later actually seeing one of the stadiums in person. Anyway, I got back to the barracks and had a couple beers with the guys in my room. There was a Mexican guy with us named Gallegos who had bought a case of Tecate, which was a Mexican beer, at the shoppette and I just couldn’t stop laughing at him for being in Germany and drinking Mexican beer. Old habits die hard I guess.

(Stay tuned for Part 14...)

Friday, May 01, 2009

Has it been 10 11 years already?

Yep, it's May 1st again. Anyone who follows this blog should know that May 1st is a special day for me - it's the day that I stepped off the plane at Rhein-Main AFB in Frankfurt in 1998 and got a new lease on life. You may recall that I celebrated the 10 year anniversary last year by posting the first few chapters of the book that I was writing about my journey, entitled "Dancing Lessons From God"...well, this year I figured what the hell, I'll post a few more. Part II details my journey from home to Germany and my impressions of my new home and my new life. For anyone who missed the first part last year and needs to get caught up, you can read last years postings (broken up into 11 parts) by clicking here.

Without further ado, I give you the next few chapters of "Dancing Lessons From God"...

“I’m leavin on a jet plane…”

Before I could get to Germany I would first have to fly down to Fort Jackson, South Carolina to do all my inprocessing, get issued all my uniforms, get all my shots, all that wonderful stuff you have to do when you join the army. Fortunately, because I was prior service and had only been out of the army reserves less than two years, I was not forced to go back through basic training again. If I was, I probably would not have done it. Basic training is of those things that you’re so glad you did and proud you made it through but you never, ever want to do again. Ft. Jackson is the main basic training base for the US Army so there were plenty of young scared faces on the plane. We stopped over in Charlotte, NC on the way down and as I was sitting in the food court waiting for my flight, who walks by but Drew Bledsoe. In 1998, Bledsoe was the New England Patriots starting quarterback. He was only a year removed from a Superbowl appearance and was a major celebrity back home. Nobody else seemed to recognize him as he and his two travel companions stood in line waiting for their food so I nervously went up and said hi.

“Uh, excuse me…Drew?”

He turned and looked at me.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Pretty good…um…I’m actually from outside of Boston and huge Patriots fan…I just enlisted in the Army and I’m on my way to Germany for the next three years but I just wanted to tell you that the thing I’m going to miss most about home is watching you guys play on Sundays…”

“Cool, thanks. Germany huh? I’ve got a couple of friends who are in the army there, they say it’s awesome, great beer”

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it…anyway, just wanted to say hi…good luck next season”

“Thanks, good luck in Germany man, you’re gonna have a great time there”

I felt pretty stupid but I’d never really met anyone famous before and had no idea what to say. I ran right over to the pay phone and called Mike and Jen to tell them about it but they were not home so I left a frantic message on their machine telling them of my encounter with Mr. Bledsoe.

With my brush with celebrity behind me I got on the plane still a bit excited about meeting one of my hometown sports heroes. When I got off the plane in Columbia, South Carolina later that night I was snapped back into reality. There was an E7 in his dress uniform screaming his head off at everybody. Get your shit! Get in line! No talking! Eyes straight ahead! I said no talking! Are you deaf?!

“Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?! Am I crazy?! What the hell was I thinking?!”

I’m standing there with all the young basic training recruits, most of them just out of high school, and for the first time I’m thinking that I made a big mistake when the guy spots me – I guess I must have stood out among the younger people – and walks over to me.

“Oh no, what the hell did I do? Why is he walking towards me? Shit, this was a bad idea!”

He stopped about 10 feet away and pointed at me.

“Are you prior service?


“OK, get out of that line, you don’t need to be with all those new guys.”


Fortunately the prior service people were treated a bit better than the basic trainees since we had already been through it all before. We had to go through all the same inprocessing that they did but we had separate barracks and had a lot more freedom. I made some good friends during the 5 or 6 days that we were there waiting to go overseas which made the trip a little easier to deal with. There was one guy who really just begged to be made fun of. He was from the upper peninsula of Michigan. My brother used to work up there and told me that people make fun of “UPers” quite a bit as they see them as backwards rednecks. Well, let me tell you, this guy fit the bill. We called him “Youpee”. He actually brought a hockey stick with him. We were like “You know you can probably buy a hockey stick in Germany, right?” But he couldn’t stand to part with his hockey stick. We were allowed two checked bags and one carry on and Youpee used his hockey stick as his carry on and asked us about a dozen times if we thought we might be able to get a game together when we get to Germany. It was nearly May. That was Youpee. Another guy, from Montana, told me that he enlisted active duty to go to Germany for one reason and one reason alone: so he could ski the Alps. You must really love to ski if you’re willing to join the army just to do it. There was a kid named Bosh who was just crazy. He had a tongue ring and used to try and tell us that he had once done a secret airborne jump into North Korea. We just kind of humored him and said it must have been quite a harrowing adventure. He’d lived a hell of a life for a 19 year old kid. Then there was Stephanie. Stephanie was the very definition of white trailer trash. She was 24, from the swamps outside of Tallahessee, Florida, had worked in a bar since she was twelve years old, had three kids, wasn’t married, and had one of the thickest southern accents I’d ever heard. She was mildly attractive, loved to gamble, and was very friendly. I hadn’t met very many women like her in my life so I was kind of intrigued by her. We all flew to Germany together except for Stephanie who had to remain at Ft Jackson to testify against a married E5 who had repeatedly tried to coerce her into having sex with him while he was supposed to be supervising our work detail.

(Stay tuned for Part 2...)