• Contributing Author

Oktoberfest

Friday, September 30, 1983.


74th Warhead Detachment, Schwabstädl Kaserne, Lechfeld Air Base, Bavaria, West Germany.


I was eating lunch in the mess hall. Sitting with me were Dennis Gibson, Mike Egan, Mark Rutowski, Sally Mills, Carl Kaplas, Kevin Delany, and Linda Berman; the usual group. It was dead quiet when one of my roommates, Keith Hatch, entered and stopped at our table. He asked, “What are you guys doing tomorrow?”


Sergeant-Major Parks shouted, “Hatch, shut the fuck up until the commercial!” There were two large-screen televisions; one at either end of the mess hall. They were permanently tuned to the Stars and Stripes channel. From eleven-thirty to twelve-thirty, ‘Days of Our Lives’ was on. It was Parks’ favorite show, and no one could talk when it was on. Quite honestly, it was everyone’s favorite show. ‘General Hospital’ was shown during dinner, from four-thirty to five-thirty, but

that wasn’t nearly as popular as ‘Days’. Hatch sat down quietly, properly chastised.


When the commercial came on, a buzz of conversations started. Dennis asked, “Why, are you planning to go to Munich?” This was the last weekend of the Munich Oktoberfest. There had been other beer fests; it was the season. Every city, town, village, and hamlet in Germany that had a brewery had their own beer fest every autumn. So, every city, town, village, and hamlet in Germany had a beer fest. These were people who loved their beer. But the Munich Fest; well, that was the granddaddy of all Fests. Four to five million people descended on Munich every September to celebrate the tapping of the kegs.



“Yep, there’s a bunch of us planning to go. There’s a ten o’clock train tomorrow morning to Munich from Augsburg. Because of Fest season, there are extra trains running, so the last one back to Klosterlechfeld leaves Augsburg at midnight. That gives us about eight hours in Munich.”


Egan looked around, “I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t drink for eight hours. Having only one kidney makes it hard for my body to process alcohol.”


“There’s a lot more to do there than just drink. They have food, rides, sideshows, bands, dancing, talent contests; all kinds of stuff. It’s kind of like a state fair, but with good beer instead of Budweiser.” This would be my second Oktoberfest. I was a Fest veteran.


Linda glumly said, “I can’t go. I have duty...” The commercial ended and silence descended once again over the assembly.


That afternoon, at four o’clock formation, Parks stood in front of the detachment. “For those of you planning to go to Munich this weekend, be advised that the Polizei will be out in force. The Munich cops just love to bust GI’s for drunk and disorderly. If you do get arrested, don’t call me; call your Team Sergeants. I have better things to do on a Saturday night than haul your asses out of jail. Detachment, dismissed!”


The next morning, there were twelve of us who met outside the mess hall to walk to the train station in Klosterlechfeld. It was a warm day for the beginning of October in Bavaria, almost seventy with a cloudless sky. Good Fest weather. Parks came out of the mess hall in his civilian clothes, carrying a cup of coffee. He lived in the barracks, being too cheap to get an apartment in town.


He looked us over and asked, “Are you boneheads going to Munich?” We all replied with nodding heads and yes, Sergeant-Majors. “Ok, then Gibson and DiMarco, you two are responsible for making sure no one gets into trouble.”


Since Dennis was a poker buddy of Parks, he felt he could protest. “Why us? Everyone here is a grown-up, Sergeant-Major!”


“You two are responsible because you two wear those Corporal stripes. Being a non-commissioned officer means having responsibilities. Now, if you want me to take away those stripes, you can go back to Specialist Four and start pulling guard duty again. It’s going to be a long, cold winter, especially if you’re a pad guard. Does that answer your question, Corporal Gibson?”


“Yes, Sergeant-Major.”


When we got off the train in Munich, Dennis made everyone who didn’t have a Eurorail Pass buy their return ticket. That way, if someone blew all their money, they would still have their ticket to get home. We walked the quarter mile to the Fest grounds. Because this was the final weekend, the grounds were packed with revelers.


For a warmup, we started at the Marstall tent. They served Spaten beers, and I particularly liked Franziskaner, a really outstanding wheat beer. There were six breweries in Munich and the rules of the Oktoberfest were that only beer brewed in Munich could be served there. Each brewery had their own tent and their beers were served in all the other tents as well.


After we each had a few beers, people wanted to do different things; there was such a variety of attractions and activities. I stood up at the end of our table and got everyone’s attention.


“Okay, listen up. We’ve got to be at the Augsburg station before midnight to catch the last train home. That means the latest we can leave Munich is on the ten-fifteen train. Figure half an hour to walk to the station means we leave here no later than nine forty-five. So, we meet in front of this tent at nine-thirty. Any questions?”


There was some grumbling, but all of them had heard the Sergeant-Major, so it stopped when I gave them my, ‘Don’t screw with me’ look. There were about forty tents set up in the Fest grounds. Sally, Carl, Dennis and I went to a few of the tents operated by the breweries. These were the largest tents, each seating over five thousand people. The biggest tent, the Winzerer Fahndl, served Paulaner, which was one of our favorite beers. Most of the tents had bands

playing throughout the day and evening.


That day was an alcoholic blur. We got drunk, ate lunch, sobered up, then got drunk again. During the afternoon, we did the rides and the sideshows. There were dance contests and then a procession with the Lord Mayor and city officials wearing traditional Bavarian clothing.


Later, we were in the brathaus tent, eating dinner and listening to an oompah band. All four of us had gotten the variety dinner, which consisted of different types of sausages along with spaetzles and cabbage. Ken Slaby, who was in Alfa Team, came up to our table. Ken had not been one of the twelve in our group. Like the rest of us, he was mildly intoxicated.


“I came here with Marshall and Sykes, but now I can’t find them. Mind if I hang with you guys?”


We did mind. Slaby was a new guy, having only been in country for a few weeks. The four of us had been here for over a year and were, as the Germans put it, ‘Kameraden’. But we couldn’t let him wander the Fest by himself. Quietly, Dennis said to Carl, who was also in Alfa Team, “You had better have a talk with those two. You don’t leave a new guy alone in a place like this.” Although this was a relatively safe event, there were still a lot of ways someone could get themselves in trouble, especially someone new in country.


“Dennis asked Ken, “Do you have any money left?”


“Not much, not even enough for a train ticket back.”


Carl sighed, “I’ll pay for your ticket.”


The only memorable thing from that evening happened on one of the rides. This ride had a seat that you were strapped into. The seat was connected by a long hydraulic bar to a central hub, which spun around counterclockwise. As it spun faster and faster, the bars raised and lowered you, and retracted and extended, so it felt as if you were flying. I was in the seat to the right of Dennis and so avoided getting hit by the puke when he vomited during the middle of the ride. The people to his left weren’t so lucky. When we got off the ride, I walked away to an open space and gave my own dinner to the grass. We managed to get some napkins from a food stall and clean ourselves up, then got another beer and some sausage sandwiches.


At nine-thirty, amazingly, everyone showed up at the rendezvous location. We staggered to the train station in time to catch the ten-fifteen. We took the back half of one car, everyone getting a row of seats to themselves, except for Carl and Sally, who were officially a couple.


All of us were tired out from the long day and were eager to get back. Egan fell asleep almost immediately, laying down on the seat. I woke him and had him give me his Eurorail pass so that I could show it to the conductor. Then he fell asleep again. I thought to myself, if you only have one kidney, maybe you shouldn’t drink so much. Then three big, burly GI’s got on and settled in rows at the front of the car. They were shouting and laughing at each other as if they were a hundred yards apart; acting like typical obnoxious American tourists.


The conductor, an elderly man, came into the car from the door behind us as the train pulled out of the station. He punched the tickets for those in our group who didn’t have a Eurorail pass. Going through to the front of the car, he validated the rest of the passenger’s tickets: there were only about ten other people in the car. When he got to the three boisterous GIs, there seemed to be some difficulty. I heard raised voices, then, “Look, Hans, we don’t have enough for a ticket. We’ll have to get you next time.” The speaker was the biggest and most obnoxious of the three. ‘Hans’ was the derogatory way ignorant GI’s addressed any German. All of them laughed at the conductor as he sighed and walked back out the rear door of the car.


The only stop between Munich and Augsburg was at a town called Furstenfeldbruck. After the train was stopped at the station for a few minutes, the rear door of our car opened and the conductor came in, followed by two Polizei. The conductor walked up a few rows, then slid sideways out of the aisle so the Polizei could pass him. He pointed to the GI who had given him the hard time.


One of the polizei stepped in front of the soldier’s seat and the other one stayed behind. The front one asked something of the GI, and we could all hear him shout, “Look, I told Hans that we didn’t have the money and we would pay next time.” Then he made a huge mistake. He stood up.


The polizei behind him hit him over the head with his baton. Their batons were particularly vicious; I had seen them used before. They were spring loaded and once they hit, they would keep bouncing as long as the hand that wielded it kept the handle steady. The polizei’s baton drove the GI all the way to the floor, then he flipped him over and cuffed him in a flash.


I saw one of the other GI’s start to rise and I stood up and shouted, “Private! Take your seat!” Being used to taking orders, he immediately sat down. What a lot of GI’s in Germany didn’t realize, was that the civil rights we enjoyed in the United States didn’t exist here. I heard a groan from Dennis who was sitting across the aisle from me, but I ignored him. Walking up the aisle to the conductor, I asked him in my passable German, "Wie viel schulden diese beiden?" (How much do those two owe?)


"Sechzehnsechzig." (Sixteen sixty)


I dug into my pocket and pulled out some money. Counting out sixteen marks and sixty pfennigs, I handed it over to the conductor, then gave him another five mark bill. “For your trouble, and my apologies for their behavior”, I said in my stilted, schoolbook German. The conductor smiled and nodded, then patted me on the shoulder. Turning back to the polizei, he waved. They dragged the unconscious private out the front door of the car, followed by the conductor. I walked up the aisle and I knew that Dennis was behind me.


One of the soldiers spoke, “Thanks, but why didn’t you pay for our friend?”


Behind me, Dennis said, “That’s, ‘Why didn’t you pay for our friend, Corporal’?”


“Sorry, Corporal.”


I snarled, “I didn’t pay for him because he wouldn’t have learned anything that way. Hopefully, you two have. I assume you’re with the 24th Mech.”


The 24th Mechanized Infantry Division was stationed about fifteen minutes north of Augsburg. I pulled a little notebook out of my pocket and a stub of pencil. It was something that Parks told us we should always carry. “What are your names?”


Dennis added, “Let’s see those ID’s of yours.”


I wrote down their names and their unit, then said a little pompously. “You had better learn to treat these people with respect. We are all just guests in their country.” I couldn’t resist adding, “Your Sergeant-Major will be hearing about this from our Sergeant-Major.”


They went pale with fear. In a normal Army battalion of over a thousand troops, the Sergeant-Major was like a god. In my year at Fort Sill, I had only seen our Battalion Sergeant-Major twice, and never spoke with him. The 74th was anything but normal, having less than two hundred personnel, with thirty of them being officers or warrant officers. That was five times the number of a typical unit. We had a close relationship with Parks because we had to in order to function well. Only the best Sergeants-Majors were in the Special Weapons Detachments and Parks, with all his idiosyncrasies, was on the short list to become a Command Sergeant-Major. That promotion would probably jump him right over Battalion level and send him to a Brigade or Regiment.


We returned to our seats and everyone stared at us. Keith asked, “Why didn’t you let the Polizei take them? They deserved it, the way they treated the conductor.”


“You know, I don’t like to see anyone beaten down like that, even if they’re asking for it. We don’t know if that cop was just doing his job or if he gets his kicks from beating on GI’s.”


Dennis added, “All three of them will know better now and that’s the important thing.”


Keith nodded sagely and reached into a bag he was carrying. He pulled out a bottle. “Schnapps!” He twisted off the lid, took a gulp, and handed it to me. Except for Egan, who was still asleep, we all took a swig, even though it was against the law to drink on the trains. We finished off the bottle and a little while later, the train pulled into the Augsburg Bahnhof.


After getting out, Dennis and I led the group over to the track where the commuter train to Klosterlechfeld was waiting to depart. We counted heads as everyone boarded. All twelve were accounted for.


I woke up to someone shaking me roughly. The lights were on in my room and I looked up into the face of the Sergeant-Major. I sat up and he hissed at me, “Get dressed. Right now.” I reached for my jeans and he said, “No. Your fatigues.”


Dennis was standing next to him, buttoning his shirt. Then he grabbed the trash can and vomited into it. Dennis had always had a weak stomach. I dressed quickly and followed the two out into the hall.


“What’s going on? What’s wrong?”


“Do you know where Egan is?”


“In his bunk, I suppose.”


“No, he’s not. He’s in the main Polizei station in Stuttgart.”


“What? How the hell did he get there?”


“The train conductor found him sleeping under one of the seats when the train stopped in Stuttgart. He didn’t have a ticket or enough money to pay for the fare from Munich to Stuttgart, so they arrested him. The polizei informed the Provost Marshalls in Stuttgart and the MP’s called me.”


“But there were twelve of us who got off the train in Augsburg. I don’t understand.”


Dennis said, “Slaby”.


“Shit, Slaby.”


Parks looked at Dennis, “Explain.”


“Slaby joined up with us in Munich, so there were thirteen of us, not twelve. Shit.”


I added, “And I have Egan’s Eurorail pass. I took it so the conductor wouldn’t have to wake him up.”


Parks reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of twenty-mark bills. “Are you sober enough to drive?”


I wasn’t, but all I could say was, “Yes, Sergeant-Major.”


“Then grab a van and go get him.” He thrust the bills into my hand along with a piece of paper. “That should be more than enough to pay for the ticket and his fine. The directions to the Polizei station are on the paper. Report to me when you get back. Now, go!”


That drive seemed to take forever. We found the station, paid Egan’s fine and the ticket price, then loaded him in the back. He was still sleeping. He was still sleeping when we got back to Schwabstadl. I stopped in front of the HQ building and told Dennis to get out and see if Parks was in his quarters. Probably not, as it was about ten in the morning.


Dennis looked back at Egan. ‘What about him?”


“Fuck him. He can sleep it off right there.” I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable towards Mike right then. After I dropped the van at the motor pool, Egan still sleeping in the back, I walked back to Headquarters. Dennis came out, shaking his head. We looked at the mess hall. Dennis sighed and said, “Well, we might as well get this over with. I’ll bet we can say goodbye to these stripes.”


I just nodded, then followed him into the mess hall. This was going to be bad. Parks was there along with SFC Murphy, our Team Sergeant, and SFC Knowles, Bravo Team Sergeant. Murphy lived in the barracks, but Knowles lived in town with his wife and two young children. I wondered why he was here on a Sunday.


Parks looked us over. He waved a hand at the counter. “Get yourselves a sandwich and something to drink.” We did, then sat down across from the three. It made me think of some eighteenth-century tribunal and we were waiting to be condemned to the guillotine.


“First of all, I have to say that I’m disappointed in you two. I expected that you would be responsible enough to make sure everyone got back safely. But I guess that anyone can make a mistake like that. I’ve been told what happened on the train with those ground pounders from the 24th. That showed excellent judgement from you two.”


Dennis asked, “Who told you?”


“Hatch. You two have a good friend there.”


He drummed his fingers on the table for a few seconds, then held out his hand to me. “Give me your notebook.” I reached into my pocket and handed it over. He flipped to the page with the names from last night and tore it out, smiling. “I can’t wait to make this phone call tomorrow. Sergeant-Major Navarro is going to be very embarrassed.”


“Despite what happened to Egan, both of you showed you have what it takes to be good leaders. You kept those two idiots from the 24th from getting arrested, but still made them understand that they made a big mistake.” He reached into a pocket and took out two pieces of cardboard and handed one to each of us. I looked at it and saw a set of buck sergeant pins for the collar of duty fatigues. I looked up, startled.


“You’re still E-4s. You can’t be promoted to E-5 unless you re-enlist, so the three of us talked it over and we agree that you should be made Acting Sergeants. Now, this goes away when you transfer back Stateside or if you really screw up between now and then, which is what I expect will happen. But, with this on your record, you will automatically be promoted if you do re-up. Now for the bad news.”


“As you may or may not know, both Staff Sergeant Tall and Staff Sergeant Short from Bravo Team are going back to Fort Sill this month.”


The real names of Tall and Short were Harold Johnson. They were both named Harold Johnson, except one of them was six foot four and the other was five foot eight. Almost everyone referred to them as Sergeants Tall and Short.


“So, with Tall and Short leaving, Bravo Team will be short two B-Men. DiMarco, you are going to Bravo Team. I’ve talked this over with SFC Knowles and he thinks it’s a good idea. Plus, I want to split you two up. I can see you guys getting into trouble if you stay together. Congratulations.” Parks, Knowles and Murphy all laughed, stood up, and shook our hands.


Knowles looked at me, “Jim, we only have one vacant bunk in Bravo Team. You will have to room with Delany. You can move your gear over this afternoon. He’s expecting you. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I’m going home to my wife and kids.” He headed out the door.


We retook our seats and Parks reached into his pocket. He pulled out a deck of cards and asked, “Poker, anyone?”


I nudged Dennis under the table and pulled a wad of twenty mark bills out of my pocket. Handing half of them to Dennis, I grinned and said, “Sure, we recently came into a windfall!”

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