Friday, April 8, 1983.
74th Warhead Detachment, Schwabstädl Kaserne, Lechfeld Air Base, Bavaria, West Germany.
It was three in the afternoon, and I was lying on my bunk reading ‘Centennial’. I had duty the night before, so I had the day off. Finally closing the book due to a lack of concentration, I debated what to do tomorrow. Maybe a day trip to Nuremberg. Or Odelzhausen. Odelzhausen was a short bus ride, twenty minutes. Not many of us had been there, because it wasn’t on the rail line.
The town had one primary attraction; an old castle that was owned by the town residents. They had pooled their money and turned it into a brewery. What else would an old castle in Germany be used for? Besides the brewery, there was also a restaurant, a museum, and a beer garden inside the castle. I was thinking of who I could get to go with me when there was a knock on the door.
Melvin Jones, the Detachment Clerk came in. He reached into a box next to the desk, pulled out a bottle of Weisserhase, and opened it with a bottle opener from his pocket. He took a swig, then sat down at the desk.
“Hey Melvin, have a beer. What’s up?”
Melvin belched, then, “Parks wants to see you, Gibson, and Murphy.”
“He’s not going to be very happy if you go back to the office inebriated.”
“I’m probably the only other person in this detachment who knows what that word means. Did you ever think you’d wind up here back when you were in college?”
Melvin, like myself, had three years of college before he ran out of money and decided to let the Army fund his remaining education.
“No, but I don’t have any regrets. Not really. Hell, I’m living in Europe! I’ve been to Paris twice already. How many people my age from back home could say that?”
“That’s a fact. Well, we better go find Gibson.” He finished the beer and put it in the box for the empty bottles.
I got up, threw my book on the bunk, then followed him out the door. We walked down the hall to Dennis’s room, and I rapped on the door.
Dennis was sitting at the desk, writing a letter. Hank Williams Junior was rasping ‘Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound’ in the background. Melvin reached into a box next to the door and pulled out a bottle of beer. Opening it, he took a big gulp and started singing along with Hank.
“Sure Melvin, help yourself to one of my beers. You know, you’re the only black guy I know who likes Hank.”
“Parks wants to see us. Murphy too.”
“Okay. Murphy’s B-Man today. Melvin, could you please stop singing? You’re ruining the song for me.”
I snorted. “How can you tell? Now if you’re interested in real music, there’s an opera festival in Nuremberg next month. They’re performing Wagner’s Ring cycle; one part each weekend.”
“The only opera I want to hear is pronounced Opry, as in Grand Old.”
Melvin finished the beer and the three of us walked over to the HQ building. Going into the main office, Melvin rapped on the Sergeant-Major’s door, opened it and said, “Gibson and DiMarco to see you, Sergeant-Major.” Then he involuntarily belched.
“Jones, have you been drinking?”
“I can smell the beer from here. If you weren’t the best clerk I’ve ever had, I would ship you off to Mannheim Stockade tomorrow. Go get Murphy. You two! Get in here.”
We went in the office and Parks pointed at the chairs in front of his desk. After we sat down, he looked at us for a few seconds without saying anything, then sighed.
I started to get a little worried. This wasn’t like him. “Did we do something wrong, Sergeant-Major?”
He looked surprised. “No. No, it’s nothing like that. We’ll wait for Murphy.”
A minute later, SFC Murphy came in and leaned against the wall.
“Okay. I wanted to see you because I have a special assignment that requires two reasonably responsible people and Sergeant Murphy said that you two were perfect for it. As you know, we’ve gotten five new Second Lieutenants in the past month. The Major wants them to feel welcome, so First Lieutenant Baker is taking them on a day trip tomorrow. Have either of you ever heard of a town called Andechs?”
I thought for a few seconds. “Isn’t that southeast of here? On the other side of Lake Ammersee? I’ve never been there because it’s not on the train route.”
“That’s right, you’ve got a map of Germany on your wall. Anyway, there’s a Benedictine monastery there and the monks have a brewery. Supposedly, the monks brew the strongest beer in the world. Baker wants to take them there.”
We both grinned. The strongest beer in the world! Why hadn’t I heard about this place before?
“You won’t be so happy when you here the rest of it. I want you to drive them there and make sure they all get back safely. Without incident. Without getting arrested. Do you understand?”
Dennis sputtered, “You want us to go to a brewery that makes the strongest beer in the world and we can’t even have one?”
“I didn’t say you couldn’t have a beer. You can have one. Just one. Believe me, after two, you would be bouncing off the walls. If you drank three, you wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone drive.”
Annoyed, I said, “So, Sergeant-Major, let me see if I understand you correctly. We get to spend our day off hauling a bunch of butter bars around so that they can get drunk and we get to be their baby-sitters. What do we get out of it?”
“You get the satisfaction of knowing that you have done me a very big favor. And I never forget favors that I owe.”
Murphy reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. Handing it to me, he said, “Here are the directions to Andechs. Now, both of you listen good. You are used to dealing with officers one at a time. Tomorrow, you’re going to have a group of them. Second Lieutenants, especially new ones, are idiots by themselves.
In a group, they are just plain ignorant. I recommended you two to the Sergeant- Major because Gibson, you are the most mature twenty-year-old I’ve ever met and DiMarco, you were in a fraternity in college and can relate to this bunch. Just think of them as frat boys and remember what you were like back then.”
Parks added, “Be respectful, but firm. Don’t let them get away with any bullshit. If they give you a hard time about anything, tell them you are following my orders. If they have a problem, they can take it up with me and I’ll put the fear of God into them.”
I couldn’t help adding, “Or the fear of the Sergeant-Major, which is worse.”
Parks grinned. “Sometimes having this star on my sleeve has its advantages. Have the van out front tomorrow at one o’clock. I’ll be there and give them a few words before you leave. You two can go now. Ed, stay a minute. I want to talk to you about something.”
After lunch the following day, I went to the motor pool and signed out one of the vans. Driving it over to the HQ building, I saw Dennis waiting outside for me. It had snowed during the night and to the south, the Alps were hidden by dense clouds, although it was sunny here. Every morning, when I got up, I would look out the window at those mountains and think to myself, ‘what a fantastic sight’. I had never been far enough west to see the Rockies, and the Appalachians, well those were just big hills compared to the Alps.
Dennis got into the passenger seat and closed the door. I turned on the radio, tuning in a classical station and Dennis groaned. “I’m driving, so I pick the music.” The HQ door opened and the Sergeant-Major came out followed by Lieutenant Baker, the five second lieutenants, and Captain Iverson, the Detachment Executive Officer. Dennis and I both got out and I walked around the van to stand next to him.
Iverson addressed the lieutenants. “Corporals Gibson and DiMarco are going to drive you to Andechs. They are responsible for making sure that you get back safely. I hope you enjoy yourselves this afternoon. Remember you're representing this unit and the US Army, so please conduct yourselves accordingly.”
Dennis slid the rear door open and we watched as they piled in; Second Lieutenants Stephanie Carter, Melanie Dunne, Carlos Larasca, Gordon Meiers, and Michael Sims. Lieutenant Baker got in last of all. Dennis slid the door closed and grinned at Parks, “Permission to depart, Sergeant-Major?” Parks just shook his head and turned to go back inside.
I got in behind the driver’s seat, put the van in gear, and we were off. Lieutenant Sims yelled from the back. “Put on some good music! This is going to put me to sleep. Let’s hear some Zeppelin or AC/DC.” The rest of them hooted and voiced their displeasure with my choice of music.
“I’m driving, so we listen to my music.” I thought that would end the music revolt, but I was wrong. They all started arguing about the radio and finally, Baker asked, “Jim, couldn’t you just change the station for the ride there?” Fine. I liked Baker. He was the officer I pulled duty with most of the time, so I grudgingly acceded to his request.
The drive lasted about an hour, most of it taken up with Baker giving the five a running commentary about the places we drove through, other interesting sites in Bavaria to visit, local Bavarian customs, and so on. It was like having a tour guide along. Baker and his wife Kathy had travelled extensively throughout Germany, Austria, and Spain, and knew the good places to go. They went to Paris once, but didn’t like it because of the crowds.
When we arrived at Kloster Andechs, I pulled into the parking lot and we all got out. I gazed at the monastery/brewery at the top of the hill, which was at least two hundred fifty feet higher than where we were standing. The hill was covered with snow.
Dennis gazed up at the complex of buildings, “At least we’ll be sober for that climb. We can just slide down the hill to get back down.”
The road leading up to the Monastery was closed to vehicles, so we walked up. The climb was steep and by the time we were at the top, we were all winded. Looking around at the countryside, I thought to myself; what a magnificent view. The ice was gone from the lake and with the sun out, I wished it was eighty degrees so that I could dive in.
There were several buildings, and I wanted to go into the church and look around, but the rest headed into the brewery, so I followed. The Beer Garden was large; it could hold several hundred people, although there were only about fifty customers seated when we entered. Lieutenant Baker led the group to a long table near the middle and we all took seats. There were cards on the table, listing the available beers. I read down the list and decided on the Weissbier Hell, which was only twelve and a half percent alcohol. It was the weakest beer available. Dennis ordered the same, but all the Lieutenants ordered Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel, which was twenty percent alcohol and the strongest on the list. When I placed my order with the waiter, I found out that they also had a Tripplebock at twenty eight percent. However, that beer was only available during Lent and Easter had been the previous Sunday.
The conversation among the group was getting boisterous. When Dennis finished his beer, I caught his eyes and cocked my head towards the exit. Rising, I said to Lieutenant Baker, “Dennis and I are going to take a look at the church.” He nodded and continued his banter with Sims.
When we got outside, Dennis grinned, “I thought you would be right at home with the frat boy group.”
“You know, two years ago, I would have. Now, they just seem like a bunch of obnoxious brats. I guess the Army turned me into an adult.”
“It’s about time.”
We walked into the church and gazed up in awe. The ceiling was covered with scenes from The Old Testament on the left and The New on the right. The artwork was exquisite, Beautiful paintings of the twelve stations of the cross were on the walls, counterclockwise from the altar working their way around, ending at the other side. These weren’t paintings like you would see in American churches. They looked as if they had been done by one of the Masters; Botticelli or Raphael. We stayed inside awhile, looking at each, then headed back out. Outside of the church was a cloister and opposite that, three plaques were mounted.
When we got close enough to read them, we could see that each was a list of those men from Andechs who had died in war. One for the Franco-Prussian war, one for World War One and the third for World War Two. The list of names from World War One was longer than the other two combined. I couldn’t help but think, what a waste.
Dennis nudged me out of my reverie. “We should probably get back inside. It’s been almost an hour.” I nodded and we walked towards the beer garden.
Before we reached the door, it opened and a monk came out, a frantic look on his face. He saw us and asked in German, “Sind sie die Amerikanisch soldaten?” (Are you the American soldiers?). We nodded and he waved us to follow him inside.
We went through the door and stopped in shock. Lieutenant Baker was passed out, his head lying on the table.
We went through the door and stopped in shock. Lieutenant Baker was passed out, his head lying on the table. Lieutenant Dunne was standing on the table, twirling her shirt around her head. The other four were yelling “Take it off! Take it off!”
I had known Dennis for almost two years; both at Fort Sill and here in Germany and had never seen him angry. But he was angry now. He strode up to the table and yelled, “Lieutenant! Get off the table! Right now!”
She bent over, her face inches from his. “You can’t give me orders! I’m an officer!”
Dennis reached up, grabbed the front of her t-shirt, and yanked her off the table and onto the floor. “The rest of you! Outside! Right fucking now!”
I went over to Baker and grabbed him under his arm, pulling him up to his feet. He blinked at me and mumbled, “What?”
“We’re leaving Lieutenant. Now.” I grabbed his coat and holding his arm, guided him towards the door. The other five were lurching their way out the door, Dennis on their heels. As I reached the door, the patrons; there were over a hundred of them now, started cheering and clapping and shouting “Danke!” (Thanks).
Outside, Dennis had started the group down the hill, but suddenly Carter yelled out, “Let’s slide down!” She stumbled to the edge of the hill and jumped onto the slope, sliding down towards the parking lot. Larasca started laughing and followed suit. Dennis turned to the other three and snarled, “Stay on the road!” He looked at me and I shrugged. I had enough on my hands keeping Baker upright on that slippery incline. If I let go, he would fall on his face. Halfway down the hillside, Carter had stopped and Larasca slid into her. They started yelling at each other and then began making snowballs and throwing them at each other, then at us. Dennis had reached the bottom with the other three and looked back up at me; I was about thirty feet behind. “It’s like dealing with a bunch of little kids!”
By the time Baker and I reached the lot, Dennis had the van door open and was hustling his charges inside. I called out, “Dennis, come and take Baker. I’ll get the others.” Carter and Larasca had stopped with the snowballs. Larasca was sitting in the snow, but Carter had gotten to her feet. As Dennis took hold of Baker, he looked over at them and said, “Oh, shit.” Carter was running down the hill.
I ran over to the point where she would come out onto the parking lot, but before I could get there, she fell and rolled head over heels, finally coming to rest face down at the edge of the lot. When I reached her, I turned her over and saw that she was out like a light. Over my shoulder, I heard Larasca shout, “I’m coming down!”
My patience was gone. I grabbed Carter by the front of her jacket and hauled her upright, then bent over and slung her over my shoulder. As I turned to make my way to the van, I heard Larasca yell, “Lookout!” Then he slid into my legs from behind. I fell backward, my right leg pinned under his body and Carter falling on top of me.
I felt my knee go. My leg was on fire. I screamed, “Flip! Help me!” Flip was the nickname for Dennis that I rarely used. He ran over to us.
“Get them off me! My knee!” Dennis knew. He had been with me the first time I injured my knee, back in Basic Training. Larasca was still laughing, but Carter was silent. She was still out. He pulled them both off, then was going to help me to my feet, but I said, “No. Get them in the van, then come back for me.”
He got Larasca up and pushed him in the direction of the van, then picked up Carter the same way I had and carried her over to the van. After dumping her into the rear cargo area, he came back and helped me to my feet. I put my arm over his shoulder and we made our way over to the passenger’s side. After helping me in, he shut the door, then went around and got behind the wheel.
“Do you want me to take you to the hospital in Augsburg?” There was an Army hospital at Sheridan Kaserne in Augsburg, but past experience with Army doctors made me shudder at the thought.
“No. Back to Schwabstadl. If it’s still bad when we get back, I’ll go to the German medical center on the airbase.”
When we pulled to a stop in front of the HQ building, Dennis jumped out and ran inside to get some help. My knee didn’t feel as bad, so I opened the door and stepped out. The pain was excruciating when I stood up and I collapsed, my last sight being of the cement curb rushing towards my face.
Opening my eyes, I saw a very bright white ceiling lit with fluorescent bulbs. Looking around, I first thought it was a hospital room. After seeing the posters and charts on the wall in German, I realized I was in a room at the medical center on the German airbase.
My leg felt heavy, and throwing off the sheet, I saw a huge ace bandage wrapped around a brace over my right knee. Then I remembered what happened. If my knee wasn’t in bad enough shape from my first injury; now it happened again. Damn stupid Second Lieutenants. The door opened and an elderly doctor walked in followed by Parks, Murphy, and finally Dennis, who was on crutches.
“How did you get hurt? I don’t remember that.”
He grinned. “These aren’t mine. They’re yours.”
The doctor spoke, “Young man, you have what is it, a hyperextended knee. You have had this before, yah?”
“Yah, I think so. You vill need a week mit the crutches, then a month, six weeks mit the cane.” He reached into his lab coat pocket and withdrew a bottle of pills. Handing it to me, “For pain. Two in one day. No more. If still pain, drink a beer, Yah?” He smiled and left.
Murphy grabbed my jeans off a counter and tossed them on the bed. I gingerly pulled them on, then a pair of socks he handed to me. Dennis helped me with my shoes, then handed me the crutches.
I grabbed them and said with malice, “That fucking Larasca. I’d like to shove these right up his ass.”
Parks and Murphy both started laughing. Murphy choked out, “I warned you about Second Lieutenants, didn’t I?”
Parks stopped laughing with difficulty. “Those five wanted to press charges against you two for, well, not treating them with the respect due their rank and for Gibson throwing Dunne off the table. I set them straight and told them I’d have the Colonel reprimand them for conduct unbecoming officers, then get them drummed out of the service. That shut them up. DiMarco, with that injury, you can’t pull duty with your team, so I’m temporarily assigning you to HQ. Report tomorrow morning to SFC Gardner.”
“But tomorrow is Sunday, Sergeant-Major.”
“No, you’ve been here all night. The Doc said that you had a minor concussion from the fall, so they kept you here for observation.”
I thought I just had a headache, but when I reached up to feel my forehead, there was a huge lump.
“Dennis, will you do me a favor?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“If I ever decide to go to Officer’s Candidate School, shoot me.”