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Monday, October 15, 2018

Airport Conversations.

Airport Conversations.

I like to meet people.  Interesting people. And when you fly across the Atlantic, you can meet plenty of them.  Easy to ask a question or two and instantly know if the conversation is going to flame on or just flicker and go out with a wisp of curling gray smoke.  Most of the time they flame on, bright and brilliant.  You meet people you never would have met and new worlds open up. Happens to me all the time. Today was no different.

I step into the bus to take us to the aircraft that will fly us to Paris.  Two other guys and I are pressed together like best buddies at a keg party.  A tall white guy, an Englishman in a t-shirt and leather jacket, and a black guy my size, but with biceps he can flex to crack walnuts.  The black guy is from Atlanta, but not really from Atlanta. Born in Florida. We talk football, which he played in high school.  We talk about linemen who are so big they won’t make it through the next ice age.

The Englishman smiles.  He likes football, he says.   That’s pretty much it for his part of the conversation.  Usually, with an English person, I go through the routine of what part of Britain are you from, etc.  But, neither the black guy nor I are ready to give up the pigskin just yet.

I lose them when we get stuffed on the flight, but an hour later when disembarking, I see the black guy again.  His name is Rickey and ex-Army.  I ask if I can buy him a beer.  Foolish question.

Near our gate, there’s a nice, bright, modern bar.  We order Fischer beers. The thin, well-dressed, very French looking bartender, brings us the icy bottles and hands us the drink menu, which is stylishly displayed on an iPad.  I consider an Armagnac to go with our beers, but sticker shock and an upcoming house payment make me settle for the bière.

Just in case you want  to try it, Fischer beer is French, from the Alsace region.  Light, fruity. A good beer for good conversation.

As with so many people I meet, Rickey has an interesting story to tell.  Ten years in the Army, then medically discharged after his arm met a bullet in Afghanistan.  “I’m lucky,” he says, “You wouldn’t believe what I saw over there.  I’d still be in uniform if it weren’t for this.” He’s wearing a dark t-shirt and shows me a scar that rides up from just above his right bicep and over his shoulder.

Rickey is in computer software solutions these days and it takes him all over the world, which he admits is tough on his families.  Yep, that’s plural.  His ex is German.  His current wife is Russian.  He has children from both marriages.  His eyes light up when he tells me about his kids and shows me photos.  His says it tore him up to have to leave again so soon, but his kids, even though they don’t like it, have gained confidence that he’ll be home again soon.  Talented kids.  Artistic. Musical. Multi-lingual. The things we must give up in the pursuit of cold, impersonal cash.

“So how many languages do you speak, Rickey?”

He laughs.  “My wives both speak English so well they might as well have been born in America.”

“So, what did you do in the Army?”

“C.I.D.  You know what that is?”

“Yep.  Investigators.  People I never wanted to meet while I was in the Air Force.”

He laughs again.  “Yeah, I know what you mean, but I tried to be more human. Give you an example.  In Germany there are lots of places placed Off Limits.  Some of them are night-spots. When I knew we’d be cruising the bars, looking for violators, I’d tell my buddies not to go to those places.  Sometimes they listened and sometimes not.  When they didn’t listen, I had to bring them in.  Not my fault.  I warned them.  I have to do my job.”

We finished our beers and loaded on the long flight to Atlanta.

But, that wasn't the only interesting conversation I indeed...

On the flight over the big pond, my seat-mate spoke with a southern accent.  “Texas?” I asked.

He smiles. “Nope, South Carolina.”

Tony’s job also takes him around the world.  “I’m gone about two weeks a month,” he says. “I was just in Brazil.  Before you ask, I don’t speak Portuguese, only a little Spanish.  I go to so many places.  Almost all the former Soviets republics.  If it ends in Stan, I’ve been there.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan.”

“What takes you to all those places?”

“Forklifts and other heavy lifting equipment.”  He changes the subject.  “You ever been to India?”


“Interesting place.

“A friend of mine told me the Indians are thieves.”

He cracks a smile.  “Most of the world is basically corrupt.  Bribes are common everywhere.  Some of the countries are ruined by it.  Corruption is a cancer.”

Tony also offered advice about the U.S. and specifically drinking and driving.  “My son was weaving through a road heavily pocked with pot holes.  The cops pulled him over.  Thought he was drunk.  Asked him to blow in a tube.  He said no.”

“If he hadn’t been drinking, why’d he say no?”

“He gave the officer three reasons.  First, he said, ‘I have no idea if your equipment is properly calibrated. And secondly, a lot more things than alcohol can set a Breathalyzer off. Thirdly, if I fail the Breathalyzer, even if it’s bogus, it’s still a matter of record and can be used in court.’”

“So what happened?”

“They gave him a sobriety test….you know, walking a straight line. That sort of thing.”

“And he passed?”

“Sure!  He was clean and sober.”

Letting that information sink in, I had the flight attendant bring me another glass of Armagnac.  Unlike the bar in the Charles de Gaulle Airport, this one was free.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Farmers Market in Homburg

Fall is in the air and that means it’s time for farmers’ markets.  One of the best is, fortunately for me, at a nearby German town, Homburg.

But let’s get this straight!  Homburg (Home-berk) is not Hamburg (a major city in the far north).  A lot of people mispronounce the vibrant little city’s name, unable to get past the more famous location, so they end up with Hum-berg or Hem-berg, or Ham-berg, even without a six pack inside them.

Homburg is small, not tiny, and vibrant.  I’ve written often about the restaurants there and especially the fests.  Italian Fest. Turkish Fest.  Ceramic Fest. Wine Fest.  Beer Fest. Huge monthly flea market. And let’s not forget the Christmas market!

Today, Germany celebrates the reunification of East and West.  No doubt Homburg will have a celebration.  The city fathers and mothers know how to draw the crowds and keep the city bustlingly relevant.  Small and medium sized cities in the U.S. should take a lesson.  Downtowns around the country have dried up and in my opinion it’s not only the malls or the online retailors who made it happen.  To their credit, some smaller American cities have paid attention.  I honor them.  Make the downtowns grow again!!   Oh, if only I were king for a day.  Of course there could be some minor problems with that. Sobriety could work in there somewhere.

But back to Homburg’s Farmers’ Market (Bauernmarkt – Bough-earn-mark-t). The streets teemed with shoppers of all sorts.  Cheeses.  Wines. Beers. Sausages and smoked meats, both domesticated and wild. Hand knitted woolens. Vegetables of every description. Breads.  Hand made brushes for every purpose. Food carts. Outdoor cafes sprawl onto every walking street. I’m sure I’ve left something out. 

Stalls wound through the walking streets and all through the old market area.  As I stress in everything I write about German fests and markets, the crowds were jolly, friendly, courteous, and exceptionally well behaved.  Hey, there weren’t just Germans here, but folks from all across Europe, including those that settled here and visitors and vendors.

Ok, you get the picture.  Now it’s time to save a few thousand words and give you some photos so you can visually wander through the Bauernmarkt yourself!  See what you missed?  Still think that lawn care, laundry, and getting your car washed was so important?

Crêpes weren't the only French contributions!  Both sweet and savory!

Yes, the Italians provided luscious slivers of  Parma Ham

Fear not, autumn is festival time.  Check out the fests near you and leave the laundry for another day!

Another hint:  Next time there’s a fest in Homburg, go! And for goodness sakes learn how to pronounce it!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

D-Day Through German Eyes by Holger Eckhertz

D-Day Through German Eyes by Holger Eckhertz

War is brutal, unforgiving destruction, formed by grand strategies, over which the men and women who fight the war have little control, and their efforts are mostly forgotten.  The personal experiences of those who fight and die is seldom in the history books, and not at all in the high school classroom.

Yes, Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo.  MacArthur and Nimitz followed different strategies in the Pacific.  Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander in Europe.  Patton was a great commander,who slapped a soldier.

But, what of the man in the trench, with dust in his eyes, while the man beside him has skin burned away and dies in the horrifying hell of being burned alive by white phosphorous?  How about irrational hate for an enemy whose bullets ripped your friend apart and left a bloody mess of what used to be a man?

We see old newsreels of the storming of the beaches at Normandy. We’re shocked at bodies floating in the waves and slumped in the sand.  But, it’s long ago and not personal.  You never knew your dad’s brother or your aunt’s husband.  They died in the war. The fullness of their lives limited to a bland statement.

I don’t blame the teachers or the writers of history books, who have compressed time and pages to make a good summation.  Even movies like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or books like ‘Band of Brothers’, must of necessity leave out details in favor of painting with a broad brush and keeping the plot moving.

Sometimes an author gets it right, but often the work is fiction, like Norman Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead’.  Another is ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ by Steven Crane, and a third is ‘Killer Angels’ by Michael Shaara.  And while novels pick up the flavor of men in battle, they are the voices of those men portrayed by fictional characters and created by the authors.  I’m not belittling these books and have enjoyed all three immensely.  But, Holger Eckhertz’s book is the real thing, unvarnished, with the smell of cordite and blood and the feel of truth.

To me, real history is personal and for the common soldier, sailor, Marine, or aviator, war is as personal as it gets.  But even more rare than personal history is personal history seen from the other side.  In D-Day: Through German Eyes, Holger Eckhertz shares interviews with German solders, both officers and other ranks, of what they saw and felt, their fears and tragedies.   He puts a human face on an implacable enemy, not to vilify, but to trace commonalities of fighting men, no matter the style and color of their uniforms.

“We crouched down there (in the chamber under the German bunker) and looked up at the roof over us, as the English up there began to set off explosions and smash our equipment…It was extremely hot and smoky in the chamber, and sweat ran down my face as I crouched there, wrapping a bandage around my wounded arm and looking (up) at the trap door….

…the thought of those incendiary grenades coming down into our confined space was horrifying.  Some of my men began praying, while others kept up a stream of muttered obscenities directed at the enemy, vowing a dreadful revenge for this humiliation.”

“…why would they (the English) want to burn us alive when we were protecting Europe?  What was the origin of this hatred?  I had no answer to such questions.”

Eckhertz takes us into the mind of the enemy, near the beaches, in the bunkers further back, into hand-to-hand combat and best of all into the mind of the German soldier, his thoughts, his fears, his sudden realization that this is it.  Not just a feint, not just a commando raid.  He looks though the heavy cement bunker’s machine gun slits and sees the sea alive with more ships and landing craft than he could ever imagine.  Unimaginable power.

This book is alive with emotion, dread, realizations, and all the personal horrors of war.  If you want a glimpse of D-Day as you’ve never seen it, D-Day: Through German Eyes is a book you can’t and won’t stop reading. This is the story of the German soldier, not another caricature of the hated Nazi, but a personal glimpse of men at war.