For Thursday, August 5, 1999 Drummer Column, 722 words, Gibbs
Part II of European Vacation Series; visit Part I or Part III or Part IV
Visit the European Web Site for pictures
Herr Young and the Cajun
How did I reach 45 without ever traveling to Europe? Besides the cost, I had two reasons: One, I didn't think Americans were well liked by much of the world. Our screwy political antics, aggressive capitalistic intrusions, and military power plays have soured many opinions. I didn't want to go where I would be typecast before I had a chance to reveal my true, beautiful self.
The other reason is because I'm uncomfortable being green. I like having control. I was sure I'd be uncomfortable in countries with different languages and customs. I would look stupid, buy dumb food, and be hobbled by plumbing.
So, why did I go? How did they get me on that plane? My wife told me I was being a big baby. She said I was inflating my concerns and creating obstacles for myself. She said, "Get your butt on that airplane. I've been waiting my whole life for this trip."
That's how we got there. I'm back now, and I have changed a little. Now, on with the story.
We drove through Germany. We stayed in several ancient towns, toured castles, and occasionally got to know individuals. Towns and castles are easy to learn -- just walk through and read the plaques. Individuals are harder. Information isn't necessarily forthcoming. The variables must be just right: timing, curiosity, willingness, ability to speak English.
We met two interesting people in the old town of Bacharach, along the Rhine. We stopped here for two nights at the Hotel Kranenturm, five yards from the train tracks. The goal was to become familiar with old Germany, enjoy the river, and tour the mighty Rheinfels Castle built in 1245.
The first German we got to know was our local tour guide, the venerable Herr Young, Bacharach's retired schoolmaster. He was a small man with busy eyes, quick wit, and a willingness to share not only Bacharach and Rhine history, but memories of his childhood.
He told of the squadrons of war planes that flew overhead like black carpet. He told of the dog fights. He detailed the day he watched a Canadian plane get shot down. He saw it crash on a nearby hillside. He, at age 12, with his friends, hopped on bicycles and rushed up to the scene in great excitement. The sight of the bloody ground and the mangled corpse of the young Canadian man, however, sickened young Young and left him with a permanent horror. As he told the story, he ducked his head. He looked like he was about to cry. He picked up a stone and rolled it in his fingers. He said he grieved as that child to realize that somewhere in Canada a mother was busy at home, unaware that her son was dead on a hillside in Germany.
That evening, after our castle tour and a river cruise, Ron, Jane, Susan and I were sitting at an outside café along the narrow cobblestone main street of Bacharach. It was time to meet interesting character number two.
He arrived and ordered a beer, standing up. He was a large man in his 50s, a Hemmingway look-alike. He drank the beer and ordered another. He saw us, the only other customers, and came over. He pushed back his hat, and said, "Do y'all speak English?"
"California," we said. He sighed relief and invited himself to sit down. He ordered us a round of drinks. He was Jim Landry from New Orleans, a retired football coach at a private Catholic school and a true-blooded Cajun.
Jim was traveling with his wife and daughter, who were asleep at their hotel. They had flown into Sweden to buy a Volvo. "Got such a good price on it, the difference paid for the trip. We've been driving through Europe for weeks." He grinned. "It sure is a relief to speak to someone in complete sentences."
We talked for an hour. Jim was a mixture of politeness and familiarity. He called the women "Ma'am" and made fun of his Cajun heritage. "We're just a bunch a crazy coon dogs." He ordered another round of drinks. "Excuse me, senior!" he said to the waiter.
We sat awhile longer, then turned in. Jim was sorry to see us leave. We still had nine stops and five countries to go.
Next week: Dachau and beyond.