(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...)