A DAY IN THURINGIA
I fell in love for the first time that Spring in 1960 when Herr Dikson announced laboratory partner pairings in Sophomore Biology class at the German/American High School in Wildflecken, West Germany. My father was stationed with the First Armored Division at the American base just outside town. The base was without a school of its own, so us Army brats went to school in town.
Herr Dikson was meticulous in all things, but particularly in his lab pairings. He approached the task as would a composer drafting a symphony, and didn’t rest until every note was perfect. Particularly satisfying to him was when he achieved “balance” with boy/girl and American/German pairings. So it came to be that I was teamed with Heidi Vald.
She was not beautiful in the Nordic sense, but beautiful nonetheless. Heidi was blessed with a mane of long, extravagantly wavy brown hair that cascaded down to her shoulders - longer when she would throw her head back to laugh at one of my lame jokes at Herr Dikson’s expense. Her brown eyes were not just deep and expressive; when Heidi locked her gaze on me it held me in a magnetic grip that I was powerless to break. Slim and athletic, she could nearly outrun me, and she used her long legs to great advantage when we would mock-wrestle (an activity I encouraged as often as I could).
Of course, I already knew who Heidi was when we became partners in Biology class. She had been the topic of many discussions between me and my two buddies Rob (an American) and Dirk (German) when we caught a glimpse of her on the other side of the gym during P.E. or at lunch in the cafeteria. When Herr Dikson announced the lab pairings, Rob and Dirk swung around in unison and shot accusing glances at me, as if to say that I had bribed the teacher in order to be seated next to the very object of our pubescent yearnings. I merely smiled back, too dumbstruck by my awesome good fortune to do anything else.
Over the next several weeks Heidi and I became all but inseparable, occasionally joined by our adjunct posse of Dirk and Rob together with Heidi’s friends Rudger and Katrin. We happily unreeled the hours slowly, learning each others’ secrets and dreams (She: movie actress or model Me: race car driver). We even became very good at getting in trouble together, as when Herr Dikson sent us to the Principal when during a dissection exercise we giggled at his admonition “…not to cut zee hole in zee frok so beek.”
Life was very good indeed, with the possible exception that even though I was old enough to have a license, I had yet to drive the family sedan on a solo outing. Consequently, the object of my desire and I had few opportunities to escape the vigilant oversight of our two sets of parents. This was especially difficult for me since, after Heidi, the passion of my life was automobiles. My entire meager allowance was spent on American automotive magazines, which I eagerly devoured the moment they arrived at the Post Exchange on the base. I lamented the fact that I couldn’t be stateside to immerse myself in each shiny, powerful new offering from Detroit rather than wallowing in a sea of identical Volkswagens. I resolved to buy a car and drive coast to coast as soon as my father’s tour of duty was over and we returned to the States.
On the weekends Heidi and I, or on occasion our whole group would often ride our bicycles to Gersfeld or other villages sprinkled throughout the Rohn Forest Preserve. The beauty of the area was incredible, in total contrast to the arid wasteland of Fort Bliss, Texas, where my family had been stationed before. We all felt more alive and connected as we pedaled along silently in the cool shadows of the forest preserve. It was on one of these excursions that we hatched the plot that would lead to the second time I fell in love that Spring.
One Saturday morning we all set out on our bikes for a ride in the forest. After cycling slowly for about an hour we stopped in Gersfeld to rest, drink sodas and tease each other. I forget how, but soon our conversation turned to the relative attributes of our hometowns. As a native of Salem, Ohio, I extolled the virtues of small town life in America: baseball in the park, root beer at the drivein, and the simplicity of living in a place where the tallest structure was the steeple on the First Baptist Church. As fascinating as the account of my hometown was, the group fell into rapt silence when Rudger announced that his birthplace was behind the Iron Curtain!
As an Army brat I was well aware of the evils of Communism, since my father managed to slip the topic into nearly every dinner table conversation. We had all been repeatedly warned of the evils that lurked on the other side of the border with East Germany, which was situated just a few kilometers away. According to Dad, the Soviets had mined every inch of the area just east of us, since that was where the Soviet and American tanks would meet if the Cold War ever heated up. From time to time the American language newspapers would carry harrowing accounts of brave refugees who had escaped the tyranny of the German Democratic Republic by finding a way to evade the East German patrols and slip through the fence. But Rudger was the first honest to goodness refugee that I had encountered, and I eagerly drank in every detail of his tale.
Rudger had been born in Eisenach, which by his account was a cultural and economic hub located at the eastern end of a broad, rolling agricultural valley just twenty kilometers away from where we presently lounged. His parents had spirited the family from Eisenach across the border to the West in 1950, so Rudger had few personal memories of the place. Parents and other East German refugees had supplied the details to which we were now being treated. Eisenach, Rudger proudly proclaimed, was the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach, and was home to the 900 year old Wartburg Castle, in which Martin Luther had sought refuge while translating the New Testament into German. Wartburg Schloss (“castle”, in German) was situated on a mountain overlooking Eisenach and the valley below, and its cathedral sported an enormous cross at its highest point (take that, Salem First Baptist Church!). Eisenach was renowned as the cultural and artistic center of the state of Thuringia, as well as a thriving industrial center, which included an automotive factory that churned out “the Wartburg“, named for the castle. I had never heard of the Wartburg, and wondered how it would stack up against my current favorite, the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.
While I was busy tumbling these facets of information in my mind, Rob - the gambler and daredevil of the group, suddenly shouted: “Let’s go there! It would be cool to see that castle!”. Rudger, Katrin and Heidi were instantly horrified at the notion, and admonished Rob to put such a crazy idea out of his head immediately! Having lived in the shadow of the Iron Curtain all their lives, they had been steeped in terrible stories of the fate of those who dared try crossing the border - in either direction. “If you get caught, they’ll throw you in a dungeon and torture you by pulling out all your fingernails”, intoned Katrin seriously. At this I instinctively balled my hands into fists, the better to protect my precious fingers. Rudger added that “They’ll put you on trial as a spy and then publicly hang you”, to which everyone reflexively cleared their throat. But Rob would have nothing of it, and argued that he was too quick to be caught.
For my part, the thought of seeing Schloss Wartburg, and perhaps even one of those Wartburg sedans was crowding out any concerns for my personal safety or my parents’ wrath. Heidi anticipated my thoughts with that sixth sense of hers, and unwisely murmured “You must not go, King” in my ear. Now, Heidi had ways of convincing me to do (or not do) things, and I was an avid consumer of those ways. However, the direct approach usually failed, which it did this time. “I’m in!” I announced, creating a broad grin on Rob’s face. Despairing that she was losing the argument to save me from myself, Heidi turned to Dirk for support. Dirk was the brain of our tribe, the one with all the answers. Cheating off Dirk’s paper almost guaranteed an “A” on a math test, which is how I came to sit next to him in every class we shared, an arrangement that led to a fast friendship. He was also a tinkerer and a mechanical genius, and could resurrect just about any kaput machine.
“Tell them not to go”, insisted Heidi. Apparently the direct approach didn’t work well with Dirk either, for after pondering Heidi’s imperative for a few moments he proclaimed “I think it will work”. That did it! We were going! For the next hour Rob, Dirk and I planned our great adventure while Rudger and Katlin supplied a steady stream of dire warnings and Heidi glowered silently at me.
The most direct path to the castle would have been to take the A4 autobahn from Bad Hersfeld on the west side of the border through the valley to Eisenach, but that route was impossible because of the mines, constant patrols and concertina wire in the vicinity of the border crossing. So we resolved to pedal our bikes to the village of Tann at the northern end of the Rhon Forest Preserve, cross the border there, and continue north on foot to Highway 19, which we could follow all the way into Eisenach, a distance of about 20 kilometers. If we left at first light and didn’t get caught, we could do our exploring and be back by dinnertime. We even had a contingency plan: we would tell our parents that we were going to have a sleepover at Rudgers, which would afford us some extra time if we were delayed.
The next Friday night the trio of adventurers met up at Rudger’s with our sleeping bags for the “sleepover”. Rudger was not happy about his enforced role in the conspiracy, but grudgingly agreed to abide by the plan. Heidi stopped by later that evening to try one last time to prevent what she was sure was a catastrophe in the making. This time she didn’t use the direct approach, I’m happy to say, but I was determined to follow through with the operation. At 5:00 o’clock the next morning we slipped out of Rudger’s house and pedaled up the Rhonstrasse to Tann. Stopping in Tann just long enough to gobble some of the food we had brought along in our backpack’s, we set out to find the border with East Germany.
It didn’t take us long. Less than a kilometer outside the village we encountered the Iron Curtain. To be honest, I was disappointed, for the border barrier was nothing more than an extra tall chain link fence festooned with signs in German and English proclaiming that going forward would certainly result in the most severe consequences. Rob cheerily pointed out that nowhere on the signs was fingernail-pulling mentioned. As we crept up next to the fence a dog starting barking in the distance and we froze, certain that we’d been discovered! But the barking stopped and, after all, we were still on the “legal” side of the border. Inspecting the fence we discovered that it was more formidable than we had at first believed. The bottom of the fence was buried in a concrete trough that ran between each fencepost, making it impossible to simply pull up the bottom and slide under. A double strand of concertina wire discouraged us from trying to scale the fence. “What if its electric?”, I asked, to which Dirk pulled a pair of wire cutters from his backpack and threw them against the fence. When that failed to produce a shower of sparks, Dirk proclaimed it safe. Using the wire cutters, Dirk cut a hole in the fence and we squeezed through to the East!
“That was too easy”, I thought to myself, while visions of forced-labor camps forced their way into my brain. But no sirens erupted, no snarling dogs confronted us, no patrolling soldiers ordered us to freeze. There was just the sound of the breeze in the forest trees, and it sounded remarkably the same on this side of the fence as it had a few moments earlier, in the safety of the West. Still, I had to force back the panicked thoughts of turning back and show my brave face to my cohorts. Dirk, ever the planner, repaired the cut in the fence with some wire ties he had brought along for that purpose. When he was done, only the closest inspection would reveal the cuts we had made.
That errand complete, we set off cautiously northward, staying in the dense trees and underbrush as much as possible. The sun had been up about an hour by now, and so far our luck had held and we had not seen another human. Better yet, no one had seen us, as far as we could tell. Soon enough the three of us encountered a two lane paved road, and confirmed that it was Highway 19. We decided that walking down the pavement would have been the quickest way to get caught and imprisoned for life, so instead we trudged alongside the road under cover of the woods. While that gave us some measure of security it required much more effort to negotiate the uneven terrain, and we stopped often for rest breaks. Dirk began to fret that we weren’t making good enough time, while Rob insisted that everything was going to be fine. I fell silent, morosely contemplating the enormity of my crimes and wishing that I was back in Wildflecken with Heidi.
After marching for what must have been hours, we encountered a small farm lane that angled diagonally toward the highway. Emboldened by the fact that we hadn’t been arrested yet and tired by our overland trek we wordlessly walked along the lane, thankful to be on level ground. Thoughts of home, my parents and Heidi crowded into my head until I became completely oblivious to my surroundings. The same process must have been happening with my companions, too, because it took us completely by surprise when an agitated voice began cursing and yelling at us in German from the direction of a car parked mere yards away! I turned to flee, got tangled up with an equally startled Rob, and we both went down in a heap. Dirk, however, calmly called out to the man who had yelled at us, and walked forward with hand extended.
I had picked up a good bit of the native tongue at the German/American School in Wildflecken, but I was far from fluent. So I was thankful once again that Dirk was along on our escapade, since we had not even contemplated that we might be called upon to actually speak to anyone while in the East. After a handshake and a short conversation Dirk calmly bent under the hood and began fiddling with the car’s innards while Rob and I stood nervously nearby, peering up and down the highway for signs of approaching army convoys. From the words that I could understand, I realized that the man’s ancient and street worn car had broken down at the intersection of the farm lane and the highway, and that his anger was directed at it, not us. The hood was open, and the man had a rock in his hand which he had been using to hammer the recalcitrant car into submission. . I noticed a woman sitting impassively in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead. In due course Dirk had the engine running again, and the driver’s demeanor changed dramatically. Now all smiles, he danced over to me and Rob, grasped and pumped our hands vigorously, and spewed a torrent of now-happy German while ushering us toward his dusty car.
Flinging open the rear door, he motioned us inside. I quickly glanced at Dirk, who looked back as if to say “Do you want to walk the rest of the way to Eisenach?”. That unspoken question was enough for me, and I dove into the back seat of the car, followed by Rob and Dirk. Introductions were handled by Dirk, sufficient for us to know that we were in the car of Dieter and Rachel, who looked to be in their late twenties. More incomprehensible conversation transpired between the three Germans while Dieter ground the transmission into gear and the car lurched and crawled slowly north down the highway. We hadn’t gone far when Rachel turned, and looking straight at me and Rob said: “You are Americans, no?”
Oh, no! My mind raced furiously while my stomach convulsed into a knot. “We’ve been discovered! These two are with the Secret Police.” I thought while desperately trying to make a German word come out of my mouth! Beside me, Rob silently gripped the chintz upholstery of the back seat with white knuckles. Suddenly smiling, Rachel soothed our panic. “Don’t worry - we aren’t Stasi. Just ordinary Germans. We won’t turn you in.” Still in a state of shock I attempted a reply, but all that I could muster was a garbled “Thrmerglp”, which provoked a round of uproarious laughter from Dieter and Rachel. Soon Dirk started giggling too, and before long, the entire car was filled with the laughter of five new friends.
Dieter and Rachel both spoke passable English, which they had studied at University, so that became our language of choice while we got to know each other. Dieter worked in Eisenach as an electrical engineer, while Rachel was a history teacher. On weekends they enjoyed drives in the countryside, and it was one of those excursions that we had stumbled upon. Rachel confided that their weekend drives were frequently interrupted by mechanical difficulties. “Trabants are worthless Soviet junk,” offered Dieter about our current means of transportation “but this is all we can afford. Where we live, in Eisenbach, they make a fine German car - the Wartburg . Plenty of power, self-lubricating and steel, not cheap plastic and tin like this”, he exclaimed, pounding the dashboard for emphasis. “Dieter kicked this car so hard last year he broke his foot” laughed Rachel. “We are on the waiting list for a Wartburg, but that could take years”.
We laboriously crested a hill, and spread out before us was a broad valley punctuated by a small scraggy mountain standing guard over a mid-sized city. “Coming to Eisenach” announced Dieter. Just then a pale green car that somewhat resembled an Oldsmobile passed us going in the same direction. “Watch this” shouted Dieter. “That’s a Wartburg. Watch him go downhill”. As the car passed us and headed downhill it began picking up speed. Rather than braking, as Dieter was doing, the Wartburg accelerated until, at the bottom of the hill it was careening along at breakneck speed. “Wartburgs have two cycle engines and a freewheeling transmission, like bicycles” explained Dieter. “If they coast downhill, the engine loses lubrication and seizes. Makes for interesting driving experience.” The young car enthusiast in me drank in all these details and more as I pressed Dieter to tell me everything he knew about the Wartburg. When his knowledge ran out and my curiosity was still unsatisfied, Dieter offered to take us to a friend of his in Eisenach who owned a Wartburg 311. I wasted no time accepting the offer, to the chagrin of my buddies who didn’t share my love of automobiles.
Perhaps desperate to change the subject, Rob interjected “Hey, is that the castle up there?”, pointing to a hulking edifice on the flanks of the mountain we were now approaching. “Yes it is” replied Rachel, who began rattling off Schloss Wartburg’s history and interesting anecdotes, many of which we had already heard from Rudger. I craned my neck to get a better view of the Castle, and what I saw was a disappointment. The building (or buildings, for there were several within the walls) looked like a violent collision between a German beer hall and an Italian wedding cake. Most of the outer wall was half timber and plaster, while parts were a clay masonry block with various arches and columns added for no apparent reason. The only thing castle-like about it was the keep, which towered above the walls. I kept my architectural musings to myself, because Rachel was still proudly enumerating the structure’s many virtues.
As we passed the foot of the mountain and reached the edge of town, Dieter turned off the Frankfurterstrasse and wound his way through a residential district until we arrived in front of his friend’s house, a small but tidy cracker box with a well kept yard in front. In the driveway sat a steel blue Wartburg. “Wait here” commanded Dieter as he left to ring the doorbell. Presently his friend Kellen came to the door and the two held a momentary consultation. Then Dieter motioned us to join him in the driveway. After introductions we were allowed to approach the object of my affection sitting in the drive. Dieter’s friend opened the hood so I could get a look inside. I was astonished, because it seemed that the factory had made a tremendous error and installed the engine backwards! The radiator and fan were closest to the firewall, instead of being oriented toward the matrix-like grill! Seeing my surprise, Kellen explained that the engine had no water pump and circulated its water in a thermosyphon process in which the warm water would naturally rise and force its way into the top of the radiator where it would cool and condense as gravity pushed it down through the radiator and into the bottom of the engine, where the process would repeat.
Kellen got in to start the engine, and after cranking the starter motor for an inordinately long time it gasped to life, belching a huge cloud of bluish smoke all over the neighborhood. The Wartburg’s three cylinders clacked away vigorously like a demented sewing machine, and Kellen motioned for me to get in beside him, an offer I eagerly accepted. We then took a spin around the block, and I was amazed at how powerful the car seemed to be. Without offering to let me drive Kellen returned to the house and parked the Wartburg in the drive. Dieter was right - this car was solid. And the interior was positively sumptuous compared to Dieter’s Trabant. It was no Bel Air, but this car had some style to it, as well. If you squinted your eyes just right you could convince yourself that the rear fender sported a vestigial fin. I realized that I had fallen in love for the second time that spring.
Dirk and Rob were obviously anxious to be off, so I thanked Kellen and we all piled back into Dieter’s decidedly less exciting Trabant and we headed south out of town toward the Rohr Forest. Dieter and Rachel navigated us as close to the border as they dared, since now they were in as much danger as we were. We quickly said our goodbyes in the thin late afternoon sunlight, and off they churned. Finding our way back to the border fence was easier that I expected, and once again our luck held and we were not detected. Squeezing once again through the hole we had cut that morning, we retrieved our bikes and sped south to Wildflecken, arriving in plenty of time for dinner. The three adventurers spent the better part of Sunday recounting our exploits to a rapt (except for Heidi) audience of admirers. Over time, even Heidi eventually softened and allowed that we were, indeed, brave - but foolish - explorers.
A year later my father’s unit rotated stateside. Heidi and I spent our last night together walking hand in hand along the country lanes outside Wildflecken, making promises of eternal fidelity that we wouldn’t keep and plotting a reunion that never happened. I finished out my senior year as a misfit in a high school in California, constantly dreaming of my two loves back in Germany. Heidi and I eventually lost touch, as was inevitable, an adult me conceded. In due course I achieved a degree, established a career, got married and started a family. Over the years and even now, my thoughts sometime drift back to the summer of 1960, my beloved Heidi and the beautiful Wartburg 311. I know that I will never see Heidi again, but I never lost faith that one day I would be reunited with my cherished Wartburg.
And that is why I should win this contest.