Flashback: US Army | The Night Train to Heidelberg (Part two)

January 1960

Looking back, I have to believe the high alcohol content German pilsner beer at the Nairobi Bar might have saved the three PFC’s that frigid night in Heidelberg…

PFC Wertz, who had imbibed more than PFC Duggan and me, had become more coherent after falling on his wallet on an icy strasse (German street). Unfortunately, his fall had delayed us five-minutes or so, which might have contributed to us missing the last train to Heidelberg (until 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning). As we stood on the platform and cursed the train I glanced at my watch: fifteen minutes until midnight and I was already freezing my ass off.

Between the three of us we had about fifteen German Marks, which was about four dollars and change. This would not buy a room at any hotel or meet the taxi fare required to return to Mannheim, about fifteen kilometers away. I hadn’t seen any taxis, but even if we had the cash I don’t think any us could convey our destination to a German cab driver.

The German Hotel Lobby Sanctuary

But we had a plan. PFC Wertz, who had experienced many similar predicaments in the suburbs of Pittsburg, PA, stated with absolute confidence that we could find refuge in a local hotel lobby (his actual verbiage, although not grammatically correct, was nevertheless much more colorful).

I held back saying, “We’re not in Kansas [I mean Pittsburg] anymore,” as the thought of a warm room was too hopeful to disregard.

US Army field jacket photo by superdenim.com

We marched back toward the Nairobi Bar, dressed in jeans, boots and U.S. Army issue olive drab field jackets (over dress shirts). About a block away a small hotel looked inviting only because of the bitter cold. Wertz had this idea that he could bribe the night clerk with our fifteen Marks to allow us to sack out in some lobby chairs.

Wertz had sat in the rear of the Mannheim STRATCOM Microwave Radio class all week and never asked the instructors questions unless it had something to do with lunch. Tonight, though, he had found his calling. He was the leader of the lost PFC’s. The alcohol had worn off somewhat, but not enough to squash his confidence to lead Duggan and me on the mission. With the confidence of a staff sergeant, Wertz led the march up to the hotel entrance and opened the door. PFC Duggan and I followed.

The warmth of the lobby sapped the energy from us. While Wertz continued to the front desk PFC Duggan and me fell into oversized couches that swallowed us into a drowsy comfort.

None of us spoke German although Wertz had been bragging all week that most of his ancestors were German and claimed to know some choice phrases. If the front desk clerk did not speak any English then our chances of remaining in these incredibly warm and comfortable couches were slim.

I had hoped to find a young clerk behind the desk who would sympathize with three American soldiers. But Wertz had said a few words to an older fellow behind the front desk and then quickly retreated away from the counter.

The large, rotund and balding fellow looked more like a night manager that a clerk. His red face could be the result of drink or what Wertz had said, or both. Old enough to have survived WWII, I suspected he had no love lost for the U.S. military.

Wertz backpedaled and nearly tripped on a coffee table.

The irate German stopped in the lobby, pointed at the entrance and called out in drill sergeant-like speak, “Aus! Aus!” as PFC Duggan and I leapt up from the couches.

“Grab the newspapers,” Wertz said, as we retreated to the door.

We heard a final, “Aus!” followed by a tirade of words in German that sounded like an armored tank plowing over a field of fresh cabbage. While out of his view I stuffed some newspapers inside my field jacket. PFC Duggan did the same. We slipped out the door immediately behind Wertz.

Three beleaguered PFC’s

We huddled at the corner down the strasse. The bitter cold wasted no time in reminding us who was in charge here. It mocked us by teaming up with a sharp gust of wind. I said to Wertz, “What the hell did you say to the old man in there?”

“He wouldn’t even let me speak. I don’t know what the hell he said or what he was so [expletive] mad about, but when he finished I smiled and called him a scheißkopf, a shithead. Boy did that set him off.”

PFC Duggan and me looked at each other and shook our heads. Our fearless leader was a dummkopf (even I knew the meaning of that one). “I think we should return to the train platform,” I said. “At least it has a roof over it and some benches.”

We all glanced at each other, eyes lowered, with looks that said, “Boy is this going to be a long [expletive] night.”

It was almost one a.m. by the time we returned to the train platform. We had more than six hours until sunrise (unless, god forbid, it began snowing). I gazed down the tracks and crunched the numbers in my head. About ten miles at a twenty to thirty minute walk per mile equated to a four-hour walk. The trouble was that the train had changed tracks twice and it might be easy to get confused. I dropped the thought and claimed my bench.

“Look at that coffee shop on the corner over there,” PFC Duggan said. “They’ll open before daybreak at maybe six or seven. Man that coffee’s going to taste good.”

“Oh, yeah,” I yelled out loud enough to awaken a stray dog that had been asleep under the free bench. I had a direct view to the coffee shop, which would serve as my beacon to navigate through the night.

The four benches looked less inviting than the front desk manager at the hotel. The pathetic sound of rustling newspapers caused the stray dog to vacate the premises. PFC Wertz screamed after it, “Aus! Aus!”

We laughed. I wiped the bench surface with a handkerchief before spreading my newspapers down. I folded the ends of my olive drab ski cap to form a small pillow before I retired on the hard surface.

Wertz was talkative for the thirty minutes or so. Unbelievably, the short, stout soldier began snoring in the middle of a war story. Duggan laughed and I joined in. No way would I be able to sleep through this. I continually changed positions all the while trying to get my mind off the bitter cold.

At 2:30 a.m. I got up and walked around the platform. I stopped at the end and performed some jumping jacks. Upon my return, the warmth that I had invested in the bench had fled. PFC Wertz snored on. I hated him.

Perhaps it was the excessive alcohol consumption or pure exhaustion. I dosed off.

I woke up with my entire body shaking. My watch indicated 5:10 a.m., less than an hour before the coffee shop might open. I rose and repeated my jumping jack routine, but this time with an almost religious fervor.

At six a.m. I sat hunched over on the bench shivering, my eyes glued on the coffee shop. I could detect no activity inside. No smoke exited the chimney. Wertz, no longer snoring was nonetheless motionless as was PFC Duggan. I hated both of them.

At a few minutes before seven a.m. a woman wearing far too much clothing unlocked the door of the coffee shop. Not wanting to sound too eager I woke up PFC’s Wertz and Duggan with a loud statement: “I smell coffee brewing.”

I heard, “Oh shit,” in stereo as my two fellow PFC’s woke from their winter slumber.

“Man is it [expletive] cold,” Wertz yelled out.

“Fuckin’ A,” Dugan replied, like the tough guy on the block.

I laughed.

While the two intrepid winter soldiers shook the winter night away my eyes remained peeled on the door of the coffee shop.

At a few minutes after seven, I said, “Come on, let’s go.”

The Most Delicious Coffee

A customer had entered through the door.

We didn’t trip over each other. Nor did we race over to the coffee shop and fight our way through the door. We marched side-by-side, as proud soldiers. The bitter cold did her best to ice up the road and she swept a wind at us–her final harassment. But we were used to her tricks now—we had prevailed.

Two hours later we sat in the warm US Army Mannheim mess hall, savoring eggs and bacon. The coffee hit the spot, but not like that first sip of the most delicious coffee I had ever tasted at the cafe across from the train platform.

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