Two Tickets to Heidelberg
In the last episode (Part IV), I’d suggested we leave the safety of the tent and do a little exploring.
“What could possibly go wrong?” I asked.
“You’re kidding, right?”
I buttoned my field jacket and positioned the matching, army-green, ball cap on my head. “Suit yourself then. Anyway, I’ll be back before you realize I’ve gone.”
I stepped outside, walked around the tent, and began walking in a southerly direction. About five minutes into the hike, I paused at the precipice to the valley, the same one where we’d encountered the boars, but about 500 yards south of that location. The rolling landscape, beautiful even in the winter months, captured my thoughts and I wondered what might be beyond the valley.
I heard footsteps and turned to see Billy approaching. “I thought I’d better come along and keep an eye on you,” he said. “Who knows what you might do without someone to hold you back.”
Billy was joking but he was more right than he knew. My curiosity had gotten me into plenty of trouble through the years, including my current situation of being in the Army, but that same insatiable desire to understand things on a personal level had also enriched my life with luxurious experiences I would have missed out on otherwise.
“It’s beautiful out here,” I said.
“Yeah, I’d think we might be somewhere in the States if I didn’t know better.”
“That’s what makes it interesting,” I said, “something different than what we’re used to, not knowing exactly what to expect.”
“Why am I getting a bad feeling about this?”
“You’re way too nervous, that’s your problem. Come on, let’s walk a little farther.”
“It’s getting dark.”
“I know, but there’s something up the trail that I want to check out. It’s where I was headed when you caught up with me.”
We walked another fifty yards in a southeasterly direction, stopping when we reached a trail, which meandered down the slope, disappearing into the darkness of the valley.
“Yeah,” I said, “this is it.”
I’d just gotten the words out when the form of a person emerged from the depths. Seeing us as well, he waved and came toward us.
“I wonder who that could be?” Billy asked.
Billy’s words indicated he’d found the experience every bit as surrealistic as I did. Who, indeed, would be out here? Guessing that our visitor was most likely a local, I called out, “Guten abend (Good evening).”
The man cheerfully returned my greeting, adding a long discourse, some of which I understood and some of which I did not. During the conversation, I learned the mysterious traveler, a hearty looking forty year old, was from the village at the bottom of the hill. Just a short walk, he’d said.
A few minutes later, my new friend shook my hand then turned away and started back down the hill. It almost seemed as if he’d made the hike for the sole purpose of talking with me. “Frohe Weihnachten (Merry Christmas),” I called out.
“Und einen gutes neue jahr (and a happy New Year),” he replied.
A rustling in the brush drew my attention and when I glanced toward the sound two soldiers came out of hiding. It was Allen G and Charles A.
“Bob Avey,” Charles said.
He made the declaration as if he’d just stumbled upon the answer to an elusive problem.
“What on earth are you doing out here, and who was that guy you were talking to?”
Charles and Allen were a couple of passive rebel rousers – if indeed there can be such a thing – that I’d had no quandaries with but had avoided just the same.
Looking back now, I’m reminded of a scene in The Fellowship of The Ring, where Merry and Pippin come upon Frodo Baggins in the woods outside the Shire.
“Just taking a walk,” I said. “What about you?”
Charles and Allen glanced at each other but said nothing.
I stepped onto the pathway and started down the hill. I didn’t know, but I suspected Charles and Allen had been up to something and were now on their way back to the camp. They stood at the top of the hill, the expressions on their faces seeming to be a complicated mixture of fear and excitement.
“Say,” Charles asked, where you going?”
“Hopefully somewhere away from you guys.”
I heard footsteps and soon discovered that the source was whom I’d expected. Billy had scrambled down the hill. He caught up and stepped in front of me. “Yoncas, what are you doing?”
“I need to see what’s at the bottom of the hill.”
“Are you nuts? By the time you get there, it’ll be too dark to see anything.”
“It’s the twentieth century, Billy. They’ll have lights.”
Billy’s expression said it all.
“Didn’t it occur to you that the stranger I just talked with had to have come from somewhere?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess so.”
“He said he was out for a walk, and that he’d come from the village just down the hill. The guy had looked pretty fresh, hadn’t he? It can’t be that far.”
“Then why can’t we see those lights you were talking about?”
“Hey, wait up, guys. We’re coming with you.”
“I sure wish the Bobbsey Twins hadn’t of showed up.”
“Yeah,” Billy said, “and all the more reason we should call this off. And let’s not forget about the razorbacks. If we run into them again in a place where they can see and we can’t, it’s not going to be pretty.”
“You’re probably right, but how do we shake the Bobbsey Twins? I don’t know about you but I don’t want those two knowing about our tent.”
Billy rolled his eyes. “Okay, good point. Now what’ll we do?”
“Neither of them has ever struck me as having an abundance of courage. My guess is, once they realize how dark it is in the valley, they’ll turn back.”
“That would make them smarter than us. I don’t like the sound of that.”
“You worry too much, Billy. The two of them together couldn’t reason half as good as you.”
“Based on the decisions I’ve made lately, I’m not so sure.”
Then, as feared, Charles and Allen started to follow us.
Billy and I turned to face them.
“We’re coming with you,” Allen said.
“If not,” Charles piped in, “we’ll tell Lieutenant S. about the whole thing, finding you out here and all.”
I had to think fast. Both Charles and Allen reeked of hashish, not uncommon among the soldiers, sadly enough, but it was all I had. “You might want to reconsider that,” I said. “You weren’t hiding in the shrubs earlier, hoping to gain information about my travel plans. If I had to guess, I’d say you just smoked a bowl.”
Smoking a bowl was a slang term used to refer to stuffing a common tobacco pipe with hashish.
Charles and Allen exchanged nervous glances. “Yeah, well everybody does it. And it ain’t like they don’t know.”
The Bobbsey Twins had pointed out another sad truth. There were times, most evenings in fact, when the atmosphere inside the barracks would have given a thick, London fog a run for its money. The use of the drug was so rampant and widespread that there was no way the officers didn’t know about it.
“Not everybody,” I said. “Anyway I’ve talked with Lieutenant S. a few times and I happen to know he’s not happy about the situation. He’s looking for ways to slow it down, namely identifying and stopping the dealers.”
“Hey, don’t jump to conclusions, buddy. We scored a few grams that’s all. We ain’t dealing.”
I turned and started back down the trail. “All I’m saying is that if we decide to trade stories with the lieutenant, you and your buddy, Allen might not fare so well.”
“All right I catch your drift. We won’t say anything if you don’t.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “See you guys later.”
“What do you mean later? I thought you said we could come along.”
I paused and turned back. “That’s not a good idea, guys. I’m trying to be straight with you. We’re not sure of what we’re getting ourselves into. Maybe next time, okay?”
Charles and Allen nodded and they didn’t follow us, but they didn’t leave either.
I turned and resumed my trek down the hill.
“I don’t know about you, Yoncas. I’m starting to think you could talk your way out of anything. What do you think the twins will do?”
“I’m hoping they go back to the camp.”
“That’s precisely what we should do. We could walk a few more yards until we’re out of sight then turn west, follow the valley, and come up near the outhouse. Nobody would see us.”
“That’s an excellent plan,” I said.
A short time later, Billy said, “Don’t you think I know you’re still leading us down the hill? When were you planning on turning back?”
I slowed my pace then stopped. “I thought about it, Billy. But take a look around.
Darkness surrounded us, and on both sides of the trail a thick growth of trees rose from the forest floor.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m not crazy about the idea of trying to navigate through that mess.”
“Are you telling me we’re lost?”
“Not in the least. All we have to do is follow the trail.”
“I can’t even see my feet, much less the trail.”
“Yeah, I know. The trick is to look up instead of down.”
It was an overcast and moonless night, and yet, since no trees grew on the trail, the sky was visible where the vegetation parted, marking the path.
“You’re right,” Billy said. “And now that we know this, why don’t we go up the hill instead of continuing down it?”
“We should be getting close,” I said.
“Close to what, the Black Forest, Frankenstein’s castle?”
“Perish the thought. Anyway, you saw the guy. He wasn’t tired, not even winded. He couldn’t have walked very far.”
“Yeah, well maybe he’s just an old hermit who lives out here in the woods somewhere.”
“Come to think about it, he did mention something about turning into a werewolf at night.”
“That’s not funny, Yoncas.”
“Just kidding. Come here, I want to show you something. Get your bearings on the trail then look straight down the hill. It’s faint, but it’s there.”
Moments later Billy said, “It’s probably a hallucination. I’ve heard that being immersed in total darkness for an extended period of time can do that to you.”
“That’s not the result of abnormal activity in your brain, Billy. It’s the glow from the lights of the village. Come on, let’s go.”
About an hour later, we emerged from the woods and stood on the outskirts of the traveler’s village, a town about twice the size of Cowtown, which wasn’t saying much. The total distance of the village from the camp turned out to be about five miles, a long way when you’re stumbling around in the darkness.
I motioned toward the town then took a bow. “Your wish is my command.”
“My wish is to be back at the camp, relaxing in the tent.”
At the edge of the forest, a narrow road wound into the village, leading to several shops, one of which was a gasthaus, its sign like a beacon to weary travelers. It seemed the proprietors of the establishment had known visitors would be coming down the hill.
“All in good time my friend. Since we’ve come this far, let’s allow ourselves the small advantage of a good, German brew before embarking on the return journey.”
“I knew you were going to say that. It does sound good, though.”
We walked into town then strolled up to the gasthaus, a popular place from the sound of it. A soft but discernable buzz of voices filtered into the area near the establishment.
All of that stopped when I opened the door, the action initiating the ringing of a bell, the old kind that business owners would install to alert them to the presence of customers, if they happened to be in another part of the shop. The music stopped, the conversation ended, the clinking of dishes ceased, and every head of each customer pivoted around to stare at Billy and me. It was as if a switch had been thrown, the tiny bell being much more than it seemed had stopped everything, even the spinning of the Earth on its axis.
And there we stood in a doorway perhaps created by Doctor Who, weary soldiers from another dimension, dressed in olive drab clothing complete with field jackets and fury parkas.
Billy grabbed my arm and shook his head, but the bizarre invitation was more than I could resist. I stepped inside, walked a few feet then paused and announced, “Guten abend.”
As expected, the mere utterance of the magic phrase brought everything back to where it had been before our arrival: The Earth once again orbited the Sun. I found an empty table and sat down.
Seconds later, Billy found his way through the crowd and pulled out a chair opposite mine. “That was totally weird.”
A waitress appeared and I ordered a bratwurst and a bier. Billy took it a step further and ordered a dinner of jagerschnitzel (a veal cutlet) with mushroom gravy.
“Having to walk twenty miles in total darkness tends to make me hungry,” he said. “But I have to hand it to you, Yoncas. This just might be the best schnitzel I’ve ever had. I’m dreading that hike back up the hill, though.”
“It’s only about five miles,” I said. “It seemed further because of the circumstances.”
“Yeah, but it’ll all be uphill. There’s no getting around that.”
“Never say never, Billy.”
Billy took a moment to consider my words. “Don’t you go getting any crazy ideas. As soon as we finish our dinner, we’re heading back to the camp, on foot the same we got here.”
Once again, the door creaked open, the bell rang, and this time Billy and I became a part of the silent, staring continuum.
“Don’t look now,” Billy said, “but Abbot and Costello just showed up."
It was Charles and Allen. It didn’t take them long to spot us. We were the only ones who looked like Grizzly Adams.
Billy shook his head. “I can’t believe they had the courage much less the brainpower to make it here.”
“You’re giving them too much credit. My guess is they started following us from the start. Once they realized what they’d gotten themselves into, they didn’t know what else to do but try and stick with us.”
The misfits made their way to the table and sat down. “Hey, this is pretty cool.”
“Well, it was until you guys showed up. I thought we had an understanding?”
“Hey we got just as much right to be here as you do.”
As if on cue, Billy and I simultaneously pushed away from the table and stood. The waitress had already left our tickets and we started toward the register to pay.
“Say, where are you guys going now?”
“It’s been a long and interesting journey,” I said, “but alas time has come to set out for the base camp.”
Billy rolled his eyes. “Their behavior doesn’t say much for the Army’s screening process, does it?”
Billy and I paid our bills then left the restaurant, followed the narrow road to the trail, and began our journey back to the camp.
Billy kept glancing over his shoulder. “I hate to admit it but I’m kind of worried about Charles and Allen. Maybe we should go back and get them.”
“I suspect they’ll be coming up behind us any time now,” I said.
“I don’t know how you do it, Yoncas. The twins just stepped onto the trail at the bottom of the hill.”
I paused and looked back. The Bobbsey Twins had brought along provisions for the trip. Each of them carried a liter (quart) of wine, and they were already turning the jugs up at intermittent intervals.
“At the rate their going,” I said, “they’ll have those bottles finished off by the time we reach the camp. It should make for an interesting trip.”
“Aw, don’t be too hard on them. We were in the same shape a few days ago.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Some people learn from their mistakes and some don’t. Time will tell, my friend.”
Sure enough, by the time we got back to the camp, Charles and Allen were pretty wasted. It was dark and late. We took them to their sleeping bags then told them to go to bed.
Billy and I would go on to have many more adventures. When our wives arrived, they too became friends.
I got out of the service about a year before Billy and we lost contact.
Here’s to you Billy and Lisa, wherever you are.
The blog entries might be slow to nonexistent for a while. I’m going to concentrate on finishing the fourth novel in the Detective Elliot series.
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