Flashback: US Army | The Night Train to Heidelberg

January 1970

I arrived in Frankfurt, Germany after a major snowstorm. Several of us soldiers were being ferried from Frankfurt Am-Main Airport to a processing center downtown. I had learned to negotiate slippery sidewalks the hard way (I had fallen on my butt twice outside the airport).

<feature photo by pinterest.com

I learned that I had been scheduled for a week of training at U.S. Army Europe STRATCOM headquarters in Mannheim, about eighty kilometers (fifty miles) south of Frankfurt. The eight-hour daily class was dedicated to the operation and troubleshooting of the FCC-18 Multiplexer equipment.

During the 60’s the US Army’s microwave radio communications systems utilized Frequency Division Multiplexing. FDM involved the mixing of hundreds of voice channels (one voice channel could handle up to sixteen teletype machines) into groups and super-groups that formed a frequency baseband (the function of the multiplexer). The microwave radio then transmitted the consolidated baseband mostly using the UHF (Ultra High Frequency) frequency band (300 Mega Hertz to 3 Giga Hertz) up through an antenna atop a tower to a similar tower up to about thirty miles away. This could be repeated using many towers, called a microwave relay system.

picture by datacom2u.com

The instructors told me that Donnersberg was the largest microwave radio relay station in Europe. As a mountain top hub, it housed rows of the FCC-18 multiplex gear. Donnersberg was a landmark mountain above the Rhine Valley that attracted a lot of German hikers when the weather was good.

But this message is not about German hikers, the FCC-18 Multiplex class or the technical aspects of my job. It’s about an extra-curricular activity…

On Friday afternoon after the third day in class of tracing schematic diagrams for hours classmate PFC Wertz proclaimed he was heading to Heidelberg tonight. Wertz had learned that an old German train five minutes from our training facility did nothing but ferry passengers back and forth between Mannheim and Heidelberg.

We had Saturday and Sunday off. Myself and one other classmate decided to join the dubious PFC Wertz on the so-called “Heidelberg Express.” I had looked forward to mixing with the German people. PFC Wertz described his intent in a crude explanation that ended with his desire to lose his “third leg.” Our other cohort, PFC Duggan (all us class members were PFC’s), like me, just wanted to sample the German atmosphere and made it clear he was short on German Marks and would not be spending fraulein currency.

The Heidelberg Express was a slow boat to China. We arrived about an hour later at Heidelberg (only about twenty kilometers from Mannheim). The train brought us right to edge of the city, but not to the main train station. We walked to the downtown Heidelberg in fifteen to twenty minutes.

Like my buddy Roy back at Fort Monmouth, PFC Wertz had a nose for where the bars were. We followed him into the Nairobi Bar. Inside, stuffed African animals on the walls looked fierce. There were a lot of pictures. I saw what looked like a photo of Ernest Hemingway (although it was more likely a movie actor) posed next to a slain lion. We sat at the bar and ordered drei (three) pilsner beers.

Without a doubt the German pilsner was the best beer I had ever drunk. I consumed several tankards that evening. PFC Wertz entertained us with stories of his upbringing in Pittsburg, all the while eyeing a stunning blond fraulein in the company of an athletic looking German man.

I had informed Wertz from the get go that we had to leave the bar at eleven p.m. at the very latest to catch the last train to Mannheim. My cohort PFC Duggan added, “Baby, it’s cold outside,” while stealing a glance at the fetching fraulein that we had secretly named Heidi.

At 10:30 p.m. (according to the out-of-place cuckoo clock on the wall next to the stuffed cheetah head) I nodded at Wertz and Duggan, pointing to the clock. Wertz laughed and ordered another round from the portly barmaid that was more than twice his age.

When the beers arrived fifteen minutes later, Wertz made a lewd comment that had to do with the perfection and size of the beautiful fraulein’s breasts. I think Wertz had assumed all along that her German beau did not speak English.

Wrong. The German guy apparently had heard enough. He rose, sweeping his chair away with a flick of his hand just as the birds signified eleven p.m. with, “Cuckoo, cuckoo…”

The ensuing cuckoos were drowned out by the German man’s insistence that Wertz apologize to his girlfriend. He added several German words for emphasis.

Hertz had imbibed maybe two more beers than PFC Duggan and me. His inebriated, determined look ruled out an apology. This meant a lot trouble that I didn’t need. I stepped in front of Wert and facing the German guy said, “Look, he didn’t mean it. He’s drunk. Okay?”

I must have sounded like I was trying to break up a fight in Redondo Beach, CA after the Friday night football game. The German wore a dissatisfied scowl.

Then Wertz blurted out, “Nobody needs to talk for me.”

I stole a glance at the cuckoo clock: 11:05 p.m. My gaze at the door caught PFC Duggan’s eye. I nodded at Wertz. Duggan caught my drift.

We each turned Wertz around, grabbed an arm and hustled to the door, without looking back.

Luckily, Wertz was so drunk he couldn’t repel us.

Once outside, the cold slapped us all in the face. “Come on,” I said, “We’ll miss the train.

photo by pinterest.com

Although there wasn’t any snow on the ground, the sidewalk was slipperier than we could have imagined. Wertz and perhaps PFC Duggan and me, were all drunker than we knew…

(To be continued)

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