The Bremen Town Musicians
or, How I lost My Class Ring...
This is a story I have told innumerable times to innumerable people. Some of the details have grown dim, but here it is as best I can remember it.
It was the autumn of 1962, October I think. I was back in Gilbertsville, sort of between colleges and looking for a way to get out of the house.
I thought about working a tramp steamer to Hong Kong, buying a Chinese junk, and island hopping across the Pacific to Tahiti, living on fish I caught off the side of the boat.
Fortunately, before putting that plan into effect, I read that there was a severe labor shortage in Germany and just about anyone who could get there could get a job. That sounded a bit more inviting than living on fish, so I set about making it happen.
First I sold everything I owned that I could lay my hands on - my Lionel train set I got on my 8th Christmas, my ham radio set I built myself, my telescope, and a whole bunch more stuff that I can't remember and wish I still had.
But in the end I scraped together the $199 for the one way ticket on Icelandic Airlines, at that time the cheapest commercial flight to Europe, and with fifty dollars in my pocket that my uncle had sent me, and some ambivalent send offs from my family, I climbed abroad.
It was a big (click the image) four engine prop plane that went from New York to Gander, Newfoundland, then a long hop to Iceland, landing at 3 AM. Reykjavik was a service stop for the flight, where we would have a brief layover. Since none of us had visas for that country, we were herded onto buses and taken directly to the hotel where we would be provided breakfast. I guess in-flight meals had not been invented yet. We had to go directly from the bus door to the hotel door, and were watched closely in case any of us tourists bound for Europe might prefer to stay here, in the pitch dark and freezing weather. Very much as I expected Iceland to be.
After our meal, we were herded back onto the bus, back into the plane, and back into the air. Eating breakfast at 3 AM... what a novelty, I thought, and in Iceland no less!
I remember, as we climbed into the white sky in the early predawn hours, how glad I was we hadn't skidded into the sea on what I assumed to be a permanently ice-covered runway.
After an interminable flight - I think the whole trip was 17 hours - we cleared the coast of some part of Europe, on our way to Luxembourg, the destination for this discount flight. I remember looking down at my first glimpse of Europe - green patchworks of unusual villages, farmlands and rural roads. I remember picking out below, dotting the otherwise pastoral landscape, the numerous pockmarks of bomb craters - leftovers from World War II. That impressed me. I knew I wasn't home anymore.
We landed, and again, as we were not supposed to "be" in Luxembourg, we were herded onto buses headed for Frankfurt, Germany, our actual - legal - destination. How fascinating to look out the window and see another country - to see Europe.
Late in the day we arrived in Frankfurt, and now I was on my own. I had not a clue of what to do next, but as it was evening already, I took someone's advice - maybe it was the bus driver, and headed across the plaza from the station and got a room in a big hotel for the night. How impressed I was by the strange bed - no layers of blankets, as I was used to, but this great puffy thing - like a huge bloated comforter - that just sort of lay on you as you burrowed under it like a hibernating animal.
The next day, somehow, I found my way to more long-term and economical lodgings at the local youth hostel, in an old building overlooking the river. I still have my youth hostel passport; stamped for each night and each place I stayed. From this carefully preserved memento I know the date was November 4th. I knew enough German to find my way, but little more, and once signed up at the hostel, I felt like a bit of exploration.
I had been given a contact at the local American Army base in Frankfurt by a school chum of mine, who had served there the year before, and he had suggested I might find employment there, as an American civilian, if things got difficult. I went there to find the guy, but chickened out at the vast fort-like architecture of the place. I don't know why, but in the end I never did make contact - my first mistake, perhaps.
I recall at one point wandering around the city, which was a very large and somewhat intimidating place - a mixture of old war damaged buildings and brand new post war modernism. One time I wandered off the beaten path and found myself in a section of Frankfurt that had not been reconstructed, on streets with stone facades thoroughly shot up with bullet holes. Around every opening the once neat masonry was riddled with holes where once, I imagined, German soldiers hid and fired on advancing Allied forces in the closing days of the great war. I even saw a large expanse of sheet metal that some GI had written his name in, with bullet holes.
Killing time in Frankfurt soon lost its appeal. It was a lonely and unsatisfying experience for the most part, as I recall. I decided I had better try to get one of those free jobs I had read about, registering at the labor office. But I soon found out that as an American, or at least as an English speaker, I was not wanted. Since so few English speaking workers came to Germany for employment, the factories did not employ translators for them, while for the Turkish and Greek and any number of unemployed from nearby countries, it was pretty much walk up and start work.
That was a disappointment. But at the same time there were a few experiences worth remembering. On one of my walk-abouts, I stopped at a little streetside food hutch and got a snack - a long skinny sausage held in a little short bun split down the middle. The bun was only a third the size of the sausage, but it was my first authentic hot dog - or I should say, "Frankfurter" - of course named for the city I was wandering around in.
One evening a bunch of us at the youth hostel were sitting around deciding what to do, when one of the kids (most of us were kids in that place) said he knew of a restaurant in town where an American worked, and since there were so few Americans working in town, I must go say hello to him. I figured why not, and we had to eat anyway, and maybe he could get me a job there, too.... so off we went.
The American worked in the kitchen, as a dishwasher, I think, and on his break he came out to say hello. "Where are you from?" he asked, and as no-one ever heard of Gilbertsville, a town of 350 people in the middle of Otsego County, I gave my usual answer "Upstate New York." To differentiate it from New York City.
"About 50 miles northeast of Binghamton." I was going through my usual geographic checklist.
"Oh, near Oneonta." I could not believe I had to get more specific than that.
"What's the name of it?"
I took a breath and got to the final point in the count down: "Gilbertsville."
"Oh, I'm from there," he said.
I could not believe it. The village only has 350 people in it, and here I had come half way across the world to a restaurant in Frankfurt to meet someone from my hometown!
Well I had been in Germany a week - it was now November 12th - making a half hearted attempt to find work here for, what was it, three days now, and I guessed it was time to give up. I wasn't much on endurance in those days. I was running out of money, and I was ready to go home. I guess I had fresh memories of my abortive attempt to do something similar the year before, ending up jobless and without prospects in Ritzville, eastern Washington. So I found myself, the next day, standing in the American Consulate, cast on their mercy by my own lack of resolve.
Back in those days any American citizen anywhere in the world had to be repatriated to the nearest American soil if they ran out of resources and luck. The deal was you had your passport revoked the moment your foot hit US soil, I guess to keep you from heading out to do it all over again, and the Government would take care of the rest. For me this meant being sent back to New York City on a troop ship with the GIs if I could come up with $57 for the passage. $57 - not bad considered it had cost me $200 to get here.
So I wired home for the cash - and was let know that this was the last I could expect. When the money arrived, I was told to get to Bremerhaven as soon as possible where I would catch the next available troopship for home. Great, at least I knew where I was going.
As I was bound for home, and could look forward to being there for Christmas, I took the last day In Frankfurt to do a little shopping. I found a wonderful antique-style carved German candle for my parents - something that really captured the ancient architecture of the place, and some miniature German Army vehicles for my brother. He and I shared a passion for miniatures and models, so I am not sure I was buying them for him or for me. They were marvelously detailed - well beyond anything we could get in the States, and so I felt it was a better than average choice.
And then I bid farewell to the youth hostel and prepared to leave.
Bremerhaven was at the extreme north edge of Germany, quite a distance from where I was then. I headed out as soon as I knew where I was supposed to go. I hitched part way and took the train part way - I don't recall the details - and arrived in the middle of the night. It was a lot colder up north, and it had that dismal northern European architecture that I have since learned to hate. I found a dingy little youth hostel on a dark side street, and holed up there for the night.
I had no idea how to get to the base, but I was told that I could just get on the green Army bus in the morning at any corner and it would take me right out there. So after a communal breakfast I got to the street and boarded the bus with lots of GIs in civilian clothes. I sat near the back, and sure enough in a few minutes we were at the gate of the base.
Then the door opened and on stepped two MPs announcing that everyone should get out their passes. My heart went cold. I had no pass... what was I doing here... why did I get on this bus?
When the MPs got to me, and I sheepishly admitted I had no pass, they looked at me like I was a serial killer. They escorted me off the bus, into a security room, and there they literally interrogated me - "Who was I? Where was I going? Why was I on that bus?" And as I gave them the simple facts of my situation, they looked at me like I had two heads. It was as if they had never heard of anything like this, of civilians taking troop ships, and it seemed they were seriously shocked that I had boldly tried to take the Army bus through the gate! Perhaps they thought I was some sort of inept espionage agent on an undefined mission to destroy the base with my back pack.
Ironically, once they had decided I was not a spy, they opened the gate, gave me directions to a building at the far end of the complex, and turned me lose to have free reign of the place. Just a few hundred yards more and I would be on my way... or so I thought.
It was mid-November, 1962... and unbeknownst to me the world was witnessing the final tense episodes surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. When I got to the embarkation building, instead of being given directions on where to board the ship for home, I was told that all troop ships were being held in reserve. I had no idea that I was inadvertently caught in the logistics of an American military waiting for World War Three.
Here was the deal. Uncle Sam would advance me some cash to live on - a loan that I would promise to pay back when I got home - and I would have to wait out the delay until the troop ship was ready to leave. And as the nearest US Consulate that could manage this process was to the south in the City of Bremen, I would have to go back down there to wait.
OK, what the heck, A few days back in a youth hostel, a little delay and on my way. So I got back south to Bremen, checked in at the local youth hostel - a smaller and less comfortable place than the one in Frankfurt, but a heck of a lot nicer than the one in Bremerhaven - and the next day I checked in at the American Consulate. There I signed the necessary papers, was given my cash advance of a few Marks, and told to check back in a couple days.
Bremen was one of the better places I could have been asked to wait, I guess, for it was a city that mixed the ultra old, medieval with the ultra new post-war. It was less intimidating than Frankfurt and had more of the original city preserved from the war.
But the youth hostel was a less than ideal place to "live". It closed its day room during the mid-day and its outside doors early at night. It was clearly a place for people who just needed a bed and breakfast, not for persons waiting to voyage home with nothing to do but wait. At the hostel I ran into someone else who found the place equally inconvenient - an aeronautical engineer from England passing through Germany on a shoestring holiday. We imagined that if we pooled our equally miniscule resources we might afford some small room in the city, and somehow went about to do just that. By the end of the day we were proud co-renters of a microscopic fourth floor walkup garret room at the very top of one of the old townhouses that lined the unbombed Bremen streets. It had a tiny window that overlooked the street, a little sink, a single narrow couch, a small low table about 3 feet across, and a couple chairs. That was it.
We both determined to get some work to supplement what we had. But I still faced the same language problem. In the end all I could hope for was the few Marks a day being dolled out to me by Uncle Sam. I did try to sell my class ring, a simple gold ring with the school seal. It had no stone, but I liked the design, and it was mine, after all, earned at two hard years at the Stony Brook Preparatory School for Boys on Long Island. But the gold buyers were not really interested. I think I was offered the eqivalent of $10 for it, which I refused.
To tide himself over, the engineer sold his blood one day, for what amounted to about three days living expenses. And then, as he was British, his consulate for some reason was able to swing him a job. And what a job! It was working ten hours a day starting at 7AM unloading flatcars of rag bales in the open, and it was starting to get pretty cold, being now nearly December, and well north in Germany.
But we were preserved from immediate starvation for the time being.
Every few days I would go to the US Consulate to be told, "No, no troop ships are sailing yet. Check back in a few days." I would get my allotment of Marks, and head back to the room. It was getting to be a monotonous routine.
And I recall the routine pretty well. At night we divided the living space the best we could. He slept on the little couch and I slept on a rug under the table - the only remaining flat space in the room, which probably was not even 9 x 12 feet all told. At 6 AM he would get up, make up his breakfast, and leave for work. Then I would get up, get some breakfast, pack a lunch, and hit the streets, returning home near dark, then some supper, and that was about it.
Of course one must understand that the words "breakfast" "lunch" and "supper" had different meanings in this situation. We shopped for day old bread - although it was a wonderful German rye and I am sure more nutritious than anything I had been used to back home. Then he had some tea bags he brought from England; we got a hunk of good liverwurst, a bit of hard cheese, and a jar of jam. Breakfast was old bread, jam and tea. Lunch for me was a hunk of the same old bread in my pocket, and if things were pretty flush, then a little of the cheese. Dinner was grand - a sandwich of old bread, liverwurst and cheese, and tea. Once we got a bottle of wine and some beef - we both must have gotten paid.
I remember one adventure in linguistics at the local butcher shop. I spoke the little German I had brought from my college experience and my crash course in Frankfurt trying to make my way on the street. He had none. So when we decided we could afford a little steak, one night, I was the one assigned to buy it. I looked up the word for beef - something like "rindfleish" - and the word for sliced - "schnitte" and I knew how to say "please" - "bitte". So with a false sense of fluency I strode into the shop and boldly ordered "Ein rindfleish schnitte, bitte." (It definitely had the ring of authenticity to it.)
The butcher looked at me like I was insane. So I repeated it... several times, each time more loudly. After bringing his co-workers to help him interpret my request, which now included a series of international hand gestures that I was making up on the spot, he finally understood that I wanted a steak. "Ah, bifstek" (pronounced "Beefsteak"). I would have done better to have ordered it in English!
As the days became weeks, I found that my forced wandering of the streets of Bremen each day to kill the endless hours was turning into an experience that I can only look back upon as a blessing in disguise. First of all, Bremen was a fantastic environment for wandering, and it was definitely a walker's city.
It had a great old center, with wonderfully preserved ancient buildings, and I found that for the first time in my life I was walking around looking up - up at the architectural complexities of these old buildings that the person who stares only at eye level misses. And since that experience, I never go through a city without looking up now. Sometime there is a whole different city above the first floor level.
I remember one day when I determined to get to the center of the old part of the Town, I could see the street patterns were more complicated and circular - evidence I suppose of the long gone medieval plan of the walled city that still hung on in this one area. And then I turned the corner and entered the most marvelous street (above) - so narrow an ox-cart could barely have made its way, and lined with the most wonderful shops. I recall one in particular - a wood carver's shop, and in the window he sat, carving one of those intricate religious statues that Germans have been famous for for centuries.
But the most dramatic, and totally unexpected discovery was made when I turned into a small plaza one morning and there saw before me a statue of a rooster standing on the back of a cat, who stood on a dog, who stood on a donkey.
It was the animals from a book I had had read to me many, many times growing up, about some animals who united on a journey to the city and had used this towering configuration to frighten some robbers from a house so the animals could live there. But why was my fairy tale standing here in this plaza in Germany? And then it hit me, the title of the book... "The Bremen Town Musicians!" What a pleasant surprise.
Continue the story...