1970 Flashback | Donnersberg, Germany | A Perilous Journey Down the Mountain

Company B, 447th Signal Battalion, Germany 

<feature photo by usarmygermany.com

The Company B, 447th Signal Battalion barracks lie hidden away at North Point, Kriegsfeld, just outside Kircheimbolanden, a quaint village in the Rhine Valley southwest of Frankfurt.

It took a fifteen-kilometer winding drive in the back of a deuce-and-a-half (2 ½-ton) truck to reach my workplace atop Donnersberg Mountain. My first job was not to maintain the microwave equipment at the U.S. Army’s largest radio communications relay station in Europe. I had to learn how to drive the manual transmission deuce-and-a-half truck ASAP.

After mastering the deuce and a half and three months of tracing critical circuits up at Donnersberg I was ready to buy my own car. I had saved nearly fifteen hundred bucks. My buddies talked me into buying a Volkswagen Beetle, but the small nearby dealership was out of stock. Next door at a new dealership, I found a lone Fiat salesman sitting at his desk. He walked me around the showroom. I liked the style of the Fiat 850 Sport Coupe.

fiat 850
photo by grassrootsmotorsports.com

The salesman said the coupe was available in red color. It cost less than the Beetle and had more horses. He said he could have it at the showroom by the dealer’s grand opening this weekend. I signed the contract.

The Fiat grand opening resembled a German Fest with balloons, confetti, and champagne bottles lined on a table. The salesman greeted me with a glass of bubbly. My red Fiat was parked alone in the middle of the showroom. It had ribbons and bows on the windshield. The salesman named Dag made a speech in German to some thirty or forty people in the showroom and then lifted his hand at me and dangled the keys. I was their first customer to buy a Fiat at this dealership. 

Out of the corner of my eye I watched the wide showroom doors slowly spread open.

Every dog has its day. The salesman escorted me to the red Fiat. I got in and started up the engine. The crowd of people began clapping. I inched my way toward the showroom doors to the sound of applause. I waved to the attendees like some dignitary, milking my minutes of fame. Dag walked along side the Fiat to the door.

A final handshake, the popping sound of champagne bottles, balloons dropping in my rear view, and I was on my way.

Over the next few weeks I would take advantage of my unused leave for road adventures to Amsterdam, Zurich, and the German Alps at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. My work schedule of four days on and four days off—twelve hour shifts—worked great for traveling.

Where in the world is Asmara, Ethiopia? 

ethiopia-stamp
photo by origins.osu.edu

Several weeks later my roommate Tom was selected for reassignment to Kagnew Station, Asmara, Ethiopia, somewhere in Africa. Tom spoke fluent German and understood German white wine far better than electronics circuits. He made it clear that he wanted to stay in Deutschland.

Without hesitation I stepped up and said to our commanding officer, “I’ll go, sir,” knowing that the army would ship my new Fiat to Ethiopia. This volunteerism (to places other people didn’t want to go) would become a pattern for me throughout my working career. The irony was that every assignment that I volunteered for turned out to be a positive experience.

When the OIC approved my assignment to Kagnew Station, Asmara, Ethiopia, I was glad to leave the North Point base overrun with guys that were on hard drugs much of the time. A few sharp technicians (supported by civilian contractors) maintained Donnersberg, along with operations personnel called “tech control.” The Viet Nam War bred hubris had affected the military worldwide. Other than an occasional puff of “grass,” I didn’t want to do drugs

Donnersberg Mountain | Gefährlich! 

A few days later we experienced a late night communications outage at Donnersberg while a group of German strippers performed their routines at our NCO club during a rainstorm. Since the Donnersberg site carried the President’s “Hotline” to Moscow, it required immediate attention. The OIC pointed to John M., the troubleshooting ace and myself to head up the mountain. We had a few beers, which was the norm. Close to midnight, we grabbed two coffees to go and headed up the mountain in my Fiat.

The problem at Donnersberg was easily fixed by resetting a pair of electrical breakers. As we headed back to the base, I tried to hold my speed down on the descending road.

Gefährlich! The signs were posted along the rapid decline to remind of the danger. Talk about black forests, the road down from Donnersberg to our base at North Point wasn’t lit.

Fate intervened: a deer crossed the road at the same time I made a quick turn onto a wet, slick portion of the road.

My reflex action was to avoid hitting the deer. When the Fiat began sliding like it was on slippery ice, I heard John M mutter, “Oh shit!”

The swerving vehicle didn’t respond to my steering in the opposite direction. Time wouldn’t allow for the correction. The Fiat slid uncontrollably toward the side of the side of the road, to the inevitable drop-off.

It all happened at the flip of a light switch. We tumbled twice before coming to a halt in the narrow ravine beside the road.

The cessation of movement offered a brief peaceful interlude within a glaze of shock. The headlights lit up a tree in front of us. The dash panel glowed. We were seated with our backs to the ground with the wheels pointed up. “Are you all right, John?” I said.

“I think so,” he said, in an unsure voice.

The quiet afforded a backdrop for the eight-track that repeatedly played Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” John and I laughed.

Later, we learned that neither one of us had sustained injury, not a scratch. All the windows had been smashed. The Fiat body had been battered.

The next day they towed the Fiat to the base where it was a constant source of conversation. One of the STRATCOM troops named Terry, tripped out on acid, stared endlessly at the damaged Fiat behind sunglasses. When I walked up he said, “Man, how the fuck did you two survive that?”

“It was the Lowenbrau [beer].”

He chuckled.

Surprisingly, Geico Insurance agreed to pay the repair costs. Although the vehicle’s body had been demolished they assessed that the chassis and engine were in good shape. The bad news was that I had a flight to catch to Asmara, Ethiopia in two weeks time.

One of my roommates agreed to look after the paperwork and have the car shipped to Ethiopia after GEICO finished the repair work. Unfortunately, it would be several months before the car would arrive at the port of Massawa, in Ethiopia…

(to be continued)

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