It’s a cold, Monday afternoon and I sit in the breakroom at work, staring through the window, admiring the blue sky. Hey, I’m allowed a 15 minute break. Blocking a portion of the horizon, an old-styled, brick building, which rises from the floor of the valley below my position, reminds me of something from the past and I’m transported back to Germany in the winter of 1971.
During my tour, I’d met many people in the states and made some acquaintances overseas within the processing phase, but when I stepped off the bus at Coleman Barracks in Mannheim Germany it was into a world of strangers. I know it’s a cliché, but it was true that I’d never felt so alone.
I buttoned my field jacket and fell in with the other soldiers, who’d been ordered to start a formation in front of the barracks.
The First Sergeant barked out an order and we all came to attention.
However, it didn’t take long for my mind to drift past the sergeant’s vengeful words of orientation and into my new surroundings. A ten foot, barbed-wire capped, chain-link fence encompassed the base where everything – the streets, the barracks, and the overcast sky – incorporated the same, monotone shade of grey: A prison-like quality for a prison-like place.
It sent a chill through my 21 year old heart that I’ve yet to forget. Not that the place was actually that bad. Life outside the base would prove quite interesting. At the time, Germany was a clean, beautiful country, and while the people weren’t exactly friendly, they weren’t exactly non-friendly either. It was just the times.
A few weeks later, with the pangs of curiosity having overcome my reluctance, I rolled out of bed on a Sunday morning with the intention of taking a site-seeing excursion. I’d made a few friends by then and I’d asked one of them, an Arkansas native named Billy, if he’d like to tag along. He and I had recently participated in a two-day, crash course in the German language, and I guess I’d thought he would be as eager as I was to try it out.
“So, you’re talking about leaving the base?” He asked.
“We pretty much have to, to get where we’re going.”
Billy took a moment to consider the offer. “And where exactly are we going?”
It appeared Billy’s heart wasn’t completely in with the idea.
“I don’t know. Mannheim I guess. We’ve seen all there is in Cowtown."
The small village of Sandhofen, which, at the time, consisted of about ten buildings, occupied a space near the base. Everyone called it Cowtown.
Billy shrugged. “Whatever you think, Yoncas.”
That’s what he always called me. I never asked why.
I’d learned that some of the soldiers at the base had cars, so I asked around until I found someone, who was going into Mannheim that day and bummed a ride.
The trip proved interesting. We visited der Wasserturm, a Romanesque water tower completed in 1886, went to der Post (the post office) and mailed postcards to our wives back in the states, and later dined on sandwich mit schinken (ham sandwiches).
As luck, or fate would have it, a fellow American, a soldier who’d been in country for a while, stopped by our table for a short chat. He suggested we might further enhance our site-seeing adventure by visiting the Schloss (castle) in nearby Heidelberg.
Outside the restaurant, the expression on Billy’s face grew serious. “Are we sure we want to do this?”
After finishing our lunch, I’d asked the friendly American how we might go about getting to Heidelberg. He’d suggested the train. “I can’t pass this up,” I said, “so I’m going, but if you don’t want to, I’ll understand.”
“Okay, but how do I get back to the barracks?”
“Whenever you see an American, ask them if they’ll be going to Coleman. Most of them are from there anyway. They won’t mind giving you a ride.”
“What if that doesn’t work?”
“It’ll work. Anyway, even if you strike out you could always walk along the roadway with your thumb out. They say the locals are pretty good about that. I don’t know why they would be, but that’s what I’ve heard.”
Billy glanced at his watch. “The more I think about it, I would like to see the castle. Do you think we have time, though?”
To see what happened to Billy and me in Heidelberg, tune in next week.