US Army Retired

US Army Retired

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Death on a German Road

[you all get 2 for 1 today]

It was certainly not the first time I drove the road. Friday evening and it’d been a long two weeks without being able to leave the base. Going to the movies, hanging out in the bowling lanes and the service club was okay. But, it wasn’t like getting off base and going into town.

I sat in the movie theater a couple of weeks earlier when the lights went on and the movie suddenly stopped. Everybody wondered what had happened when a lieutenant colonel came on stage and made the announcement that stunned all present.

“President Kennedy is dead. We don’t have the details yet but it appears he was assassinated while driving in a motorcade in Dallas. We will pass on the details as soon as possible.”

Nobody had thoughts about the movie and silently filed out. He had no idea if the movie continued and joined the huge crowd in the enlisted man’s club order his usual, a rum and coke.

The full story came to them in the following days and they played films of the event over the Armed Forces Network.

I didn’t ask for a pass the weekend after that as I was broke - not that unusual for a low-rate enlisted man. It was Friday the 29th of November when I received my pay and the money - or script - burned a hole in my pocket.

There is a need to explain here. The Occupation had been over for some time but American Forces still paid their personnel in MPC’s (Military Payment Certificates). We didn’t get U.S. dollars, as the authorities were afraid it would increase the Black Market going on in West Germany. I went to the American Express Office on the Kassern and converted a hundred bucks of my meager pay into West German Marks.

I’d bought a neat little Ford Taunus with my reenlistment bonus and loved driving it every chance I got. Looking back on it, that little 1961 German Ford had a whole bunch of innovative little things now taken for granted. One of them was being able to turn on, raise, and lower the headlights with a thingie on the left side of the steering wheel shaft. That was important as, driving back roads in the German countryside at night could get a bit hairy. They didn’t have lampposts or traffic signals except at very important crossroads and in the villages.

I left Coleman Barracks outside the village of Sandhofen to drive into Mannheim, the nearest city. A heavy mist had risen from the nearby Rhine but visibility was decent, especially with the extra strong fog lights on the car. The posted speed limit was 110 kmp or about 62 mph. Due to the mist, I’d slowed down to fifty-five.

The car cocooned me from the damp mist from the Rhine. The extra strong fog lamps lanced through the fog and the white painted line on the side of the road showed me the way, an occasional white reflector telling how far I’d traveled. Armed Forces Network music played Stranger on the Shore by a German group right after Soldier Boy by the Shirelles. I tapped me foot on the floorboard looking forward to the bar downtown that not only served decent mixed drinks but the restaurant next door served food much better than the mess hall. My mouth drooled from the thought of a nice Wienerschnitzel with salad and German-style potatoes. I also couldn’t wait to have companionship other than the Donut Dollies at the service club or his fellow GIs.

The thud, followed by the heavy object smashing into my windshield almost didn’t register.

“My God! I just hit something.” I slammed my foot down on the brake pedal and gripped the steering wheel with both hands as the car skewed to the left. I somehow managed to keep from going off the road into the deep drainage ditch. The car came to a stop and I  sat there shaking. “I’m still alive?”

Then . . . it struck me. What had I hit?

The windshield was a web of cracks but still intact. I slowly opened the door and stepped out. Other than the light from the one headlight still intact, there wasn’t much to see. But, after several minutes, my eyes adjusted to the dark. Pinpricks of golden light flicked through the mist to indicate a farmhouse some distance across the dark field.

I opened the Taunus’ trunk and dug around for the emergency kit. The road was deserted for the moment, but I was sure another car would come along before long. I had three flares and thought about lighting one but hesitated. The taillights would serve as a warning - if I only remembered to turn the flashers on! I went back to the front and flicked the switch, satisfied when the tail lights began blinking. I gathered my thoughts, picked up the flashlight and started walking back down the road, my legs a bit unsteady.

I didn’t have far to go. The first thing that appeared in the beam of light was a smashed, twisted bicycle wheel. My heart began to race as it dawned upon me what I’d find next.

The twisted body didn't move.

“Where’s the blood? Is he alive?“

I gingerly knelt and played the flashlight’s beam over the object. The bare head belonged to a man in his fifties. The craggy features spoke of years of hardship and toil. I had nothing but the barest of first aid training from my Boy Scout days and the army’s basic combat training. But, it wasn’t hard to tell that anything I knew wouldn’t do any good. I knelt and gingerly touched his throat, seeking a pulse . . . that wasn’t there.

It was something one sees in the movies or a scene from a television show. I couldn’t believe it was real.

Off in the distance, lights from an approaching car caught my attention. I stepped over the body and walked towards them, waving my flashlight in an attempt to catch the driver’s attention and stop him or her.

Luck was with me. The driver was a German National who worked on the Kassern and spoke very good English. He listened to the story, told me there was a call box back up the highway a kilometer and offered to go back and notify the police.

The driver turned around and drove off. I stood and stared at the dark shape on the pavement. “It looks like nothing but a pile of rags.” The twisted form didn’t look like a human being. Only when I turned to look at the bicycle did the scene become real. Bicycle equals rider. Rider equals human being. Broken bicycle equals broken human being.

The blue, flashing lights coming towards me turned out to be US Military Police from Coleman Barracks. Fortunately, the two Americans took my statement and called for an official translator before the German  Bundespolizei arrived. I sat in the American cruiser - not handcuffed, as the Germans had wanted - and endlessly told and retold my story. I watched the ambulance arrive. The attendants knelt by the lump on the ground for a surprisingly short time until they loaded it onto a gurney and into the vehicle. After taking lots of photos of the bicycle, a German cop moved it to the side of the road.

The hours passed while the men in uniforms made all sorts of measurements and photos. The tow truck arrived and backed up to his car so it could be hauled off to a German police yard where it would be held until the legal process finished.

The luminous hands on my wristwatch indicated a little before three am when the MPs finally shut the door of the cruiser and took me back to the base. I released a sigh of relief as we drove through the gates and I smiled at the sentry. That meant I wasn’t going to be spending time in a German jail. We pulled up in front of the barracks and the sergeant opened the door. He didn’t have to tell me to not go anywhere until the investigation finished. Besides, where in the hell could I go?

I knew everybody would be sound asleep in the squad room. But, I couldn’t bring myself to enter. So, I strolled, hands in pockets, around the building and climbed the steel stairs to sit on the back landing. I didn't feel the cold steel on my jeans-clad butt. A little to my right, just across the tall barbed wire and chain link fence that acted as the border of the Kassern, I saw the bright lights of the stockade - and mused about possibly going there in the not too distant future.

“I killed a man. Another human being.”

Did he have a wife? Children? What was he doing there on that dark road at night? Why hadn’t he stopped when he saw the headlights of my car?

What could he have done to avoid it? Was he driving too fast for the conditions? Wasn’t he paying attention?

Questions that would haunt me for many years. Thoughts that finally faded away . . . until now.

I was exonerated. The German had stopped off at a local Gasthaus and drank a bit too much. The investigation determined that I’d had the legal right of way and the German ignored the stop sign. The insurance company paid off the claim for what the man would’ve earned if he had live the statistically determined number of years. They didn’t even increase my premiums.

But, I never drove down that highway at night again,

I learned something - there is no cold way to look at death. Any death. Although it was an accident and not my fault, the fate of others had been affected one night on a German highway when too much alcohol, dark clothing and not paying attention had lured Fate to place her fingers into the lives of many people - mine included.

I killed a man. And learned what it means to live.

The End

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