Of old Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol they said “he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
Of my old army buddy Rudy you could say “he gave his heart to Christmas, if any man alive could give his whole heart to it.”
Of Rudy’s, and my, knowledge of Christmas in Germany they could say “they knew nothing of ‘Weihnachten,’ if any two men alive could be so unkowning.”
But no matter, we were determined to find out, to explore, to learn, to have an adventure. We were like pups in a kennel. We just couldn’t wait to get going and get out of our gasthaus. And we did … but it proved, in some respects, to be a most unfortunate escape.
Blame it on cabin fever. We’d caught a severe case of it in Fleckertshöhe during the winter. I’d just gotten yanked out of a sunny suburban jungle and tossed on top of a mountain where the only thing remotely resembling entertainment within a ten mile radius was a pig farm.
And then there was the ice and snow. Up until that point in my life, I’d never seen snow fall or walked on ice. It felt as if I’d awoken one day to the find myself in the frozen wastes of Antarctica! Nearly every extremity of my body was numb from cold. The ubiquitous ice that covered all our pathways had me walking like a sailor trying to find his land legs after a long voyage at sea.
Rudy, on the other hand, had grown up in Beaver Valley, Pennsylvania. He understood the cold. He knew how to cope with it, and more importantly, he knew how to drive in it.
That was an important consideration since the twenty mile long mountain highway that lay between us and Koblenz wound through dark tunnels of overarching trees that sheltered sheets of black ice that covered the asphalt until Spring!
But no worry, Rudy could navigate hazards such as these with ease. He knew the cold and its hazards. He knew what he was doing.
The only problem arose when our army 1/2 ton pickup broke down, stranding us in the middle of nowhere. Luckily we’d coasted to a stop across from a small group of homes … one of which even had some lights on.
While Rudy stayed by the truck, ready with a outstretched thumb for hitching a ride, I ran to investigate the cluster of homes, too modest to be called a village.
Other than five houses grouped in a kind of modified wagon wheel there was nothing else there. No store. No phone. Nothing!
The house with its lights on was hosting a grand Christmas gathering. A big multi-generational family with lots of kids ate, drank, talked and laughed around a beautifully decorated, colorful and sparkling tannenbaum.
I gazed through the window. So this was how the Germans did Christmas Eve. Family time … and a fine, big family it was! Except it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t Rudy’s. And it wasn’t a good time to butt in with our troubles. Besides, we couldn’t speak or understand German anyway!
When I got back to Rudy I noticed occasional, but distinct shivers running through his body. That’s when he told me he’d only worn his cotton fatigues (without underwear) because he didn’t want to wrinkle his civies, which were hanging in back of the truck.
That’s when I started to question whether or not I’d misplaced my confidence in Rudy’s cold weather expertise. No matter though, we had more urgent things to deal with, like getting a ride out of that bitterly cold forest!
After about 20 minutes of waiting, during which only one vehicle, a large Mercedes sedan, had come flying by completely ignoring our thumbs and flailing arms, we realized everybody in Germany either stayed home for Christmas Eve, or, if they had ventured out, they’d already arrived at their destinations.
There was no traffic! None. Zero. Nada. Zilch.
Another twenty or so minutes passed during which not one car came by. Another 15 minutes and still no cars!
I didn’t have a clue how Rudy could could stand it, but somehow he did! On the other hand, I was literally shaking in my boots, trying to awaken my numb feet by stomping with on the frozen earth. I was colder than I’d ever been in my life despite my long underwear and every bit of cold weather clothing I could pile on!
Rudy just stood there like a statue … stoic and strong. But I’d have to say he did start to look a bit bluish, and was just beginning to falter, when, from across the road a small figure, like a precious angel came carrying a tray loaded with shots of schnaps and Christmas cookies … just the thing to warm-up a couple of stranded, clueless GIs!
Thank God … and thank his little angel, which we did profusely. But as welcome as her gifts were, they were but temporary balms, not a solution to our plight.
After another twenty minutes or so our angel returned with another round of schnaps and cookies, after which she made another, final call … this time beckoning us to follow her.
Hallelujah! We were saved!
We followed her across the road to her home where her family greeted us like long lost members of the clan. Rudy immediately teared-up and started hugging anyone who dared to venture near him. I headed for the schnaps and assorted delicacies, all of which tasted as if they’d come straight out of a Michelin Guide three star kitchen!
We did our best to converse with those of the group whose broken English allowed for conversation, describing our troubles and expressing our appreciation for their hospitality and generosity in as many loud verbal and contorted bodily ways as we could devise.
I thawed-out by the fireplace, its warmth a particularly welcome gift, while Rudy sat with the kids by the Christmas tree admiring its trimmings, studying how the packages were wrapped and memorizing all the details of the various Christmas decorations in the large, beautiful home, which was certainly not that of a farming family but of successful professionals or business people from Koblenz.
After an hour that passed far too fast, the head of the house fired-up his pea-green Mercedes and drove us to our kaserne in Koblenz. Naturally we offered to pay for fuel, and naturally he refused. We didn’t know how to properly or adequately thank him for everything, but I think our struggle to do so communicated our sincerity in a way more genuine than mere words could ever do.
As it turned out we’d missed nothing in Koblenz. Weihnachten in Deutschland was a time for family. The streets were empty, the clubs closed, the bars locked-up and the streets rolled-up. The guys in the kaserne were hanging out playing cards, reading, shooting the bull or just staring out of windows thinking about home.
Had our truck not broken down, we would have joined them for a most disappointing Christmas Eve. As it turned out, ours was one of the most memorable we’d ever had, and one we’d never forget … and believe it or not, the an even better Weihnachtsabend was only a year away!
Coming next! How I Won The Cold War, Part 12 … A “BLACK BOTTOM” CHRISTMAS, prelude
I HOPE YOU ENJOYED THIS POST. IF SO, WHY NOT CONSIDER SHARING IT WITH YOUR FRIENDS? AND, IF YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS ANY NEW POSTS, SIMPLY CLICK THE “FOLLOW” BUTTON ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THIS PAGE