On one beautiful day in 1986, I found out just how big of a fool I was and how much of a sense of humor God had. I remain forever thankful to Him for letting me live to talk about it.
Fresh from graduating from the Defense Language Institute (DLI) German language course, I had just arrived in Heidelberg, Germany, for another Army tour of duty. After settling into my temporary quarters on post, I quickly succumbed to boredom, mainly because I had no car in which to tool around this beautiful area. After slipping into a restless state, I stepped out to the balcony to get some fresh air hoping to clear my head of negative thoughts.
From my vantage point on the balcony, I embraced the scenic bird’s eye view I had of the distant, towering mountains covered with lush, stately trees. Mesmerized, I started to daydream as I pictured the magnificent, expensive homes nestled in the thick forest. As a cool breeze gently brushed over my face, I thought I heard a faint whisper in my ear. I knew it was Heidelberg’s ancient spirit calling to me. This quaint, lovely little town next to the Rhein-Neckar River, beckoned me to explore its charm, food, and the Baroque-style architecture of the buildings populating its Old Town section in the heart of the city. Yes, I was itching to drive up the winding roads leading to the top of the mountains to visit Heidelberg’s famous, historical castle ruins. I yearned to take in the panoramic views of the town’s sprawling picturesque valley from the Old Bridge spanning the Rhein-Neckar River.
Though reliable and conveniently located throughout the city, public transportation just wasn’t my cup of tea. And I wasn’t up for strolling through the town and up the treacherous, steep cobble-stoned streets either. I did enough forced hiking (road marches) in the Army, so I wasn’t keen on walking anywhere anytime soon ever again. I wanted to carve my own path and explore this fascinating area on my own schedule and at my own pace. I knew I needed a car to be able to do that. By sheer luck, I found out that some good friends of mine, Jim and Kathy, who had also recently graduated from the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California, were stationed in Heidelberg too. After getting in touch with them and chatting about our upcoming assignments, I told them that I didn’t have a car just yet. Since they had two cars, they graciously offered to loan me one of theirs until I could get my own. I was ecstatic and felt blessed to have friends like them.
They arrived at my quarters on a Friday afternoon. Jim drove one car; Kathy had the other, which would be the one they would leave with me. Socializing a bit, we shared more information and excitement again about our respective upcoming new tours of duty. Before leaving, they gave me the keys to their vehicle and assured me that it was roadworthy. Before taking off, they told me that I could keep it as long as I wanted to. What a sweet deal from great friends! I walked them to the parking lot and bid them adieu with warm hugs and the European kiss on each cheek. After waving goodbye as they drove away, I ran over to the car to check it out more closely.
It was an old BMW, a faded banana yellow hoopty, which is a nickname for automobiles well beyond their heyday. I inspected the exterior and noticed no dents or rust. Check! The tires were so brand spanking new that I could smell the fresh rubber odor from where I was standing. Check! I opened the door and popped my head inside to look at the interior. Greeting me was a heavy stench of mildew plus some other unidentifiable aromas, which assaulted my nose and caused it to wrinkle at the intrusion. Yuck! I quickly retreated from the car to get back to some fresh air. But, the smell was the least of my upcoming string of worries. All I could think of was that I finally had a set of wheels! I circled the car and looked through the windows to see that the interior was clean. The dated black, white, and tan plaid tufted seats looked comfortable enough for the duration of my planned trip. Though the car was not in pristine shape, I didn’t mind its appearance, and I would try to mask the smell with generous spritzes of Lysol disinfectant spray and a few air fresheners I planned to buy at the nearest German gas station. I could hardly wait to test drive it in the brisk traffic on the autobahn.
To take advantage of the weekend, I contacted another good friend of mine, who was assigned to a dental clinic in Illesheim, Germany, which was not too far away from Heidelberg. She was stationed with me at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Both of us giggled excitedly like two grade-school girls at the thought of reconnecting again. So at her invitation, I planned to visit her for the weekend. I was glad that Heidelberg wasn’t too far of a drive from her location. She told me that she had brought her mom and her two kids along with her on her tour. Though I had no idea exactly where the hell Illesheim was located, I looked forward to a visit there to see all of them once again.
Before taking off, I checked my map and saw that Illesheim was a mere pinpoint in the middle of German farming country and was a few miles from Storck Barracks, the nearest Army Post. On the map, I highlighted the roads that I would have to take to get to Illesheim.
From that spot on the map, I formed mental pictures of this small country town. I imagined Illesheim as a quaint but rugged village, which probably sprouted up during the dark ages. I knew this area would be sparsely populated by inhabitants, who no doubt, resided in rustic buildings made of timber, concrete, and blocks of stone. I thought perhaps that the structures were hundreds of years old, and I assumed that the inhabitants would probably be around that same age too. I didn’t expect to see any new concrete sidewalks, paved streets, or fast-food joints. But perhaps greeting me would be dirt roads, well-traveled footpaths, and distinct trails made by the cow and sheep herds that the farmers moved from one side of their fields to the other. Naturally, I envisioned driving through a thick, stagnant cloud of ‘farmers air,’ with that noxious poop smell rising from the plowed fields reeking from abundant piles of manure potent enough to put down a herd of bull elephants. All in all, I prepared myself for the stink to come.
With my route carefully planned and my bag packed, I took off at about six o’clock that afternoon. Before hitting the autobahn, I stopped at the nearest gas station to buy a few air fresheners to mask the smell inside the car. The entire day had grown cloudy with misting rain. About 10 minutes into my trip, a drizzle started and quickly turned into a torrential downpour, which pummeled the hoopty relentlessly.
In addition to the dreary weather, the dark, dusky evening did little to keep the autobahn lanes highlighted enough for me to see clearly.
Plus the bright lights from the headlights of the cars traveling in the opposite direction in the adjacent lanes affected my vision and temporarily blinded me at times. I wanted to pull over to a rest stop on the side of the autobahn to give my eyes a much-needed rest. But I decided to keep driving in spite of this annoying distraction and not extend my time on the road if it wasn’t necessary. Even though I had carefully planned out my route on the map, I became increasingly uncomfortable and anxious about continuing driving in this late evening traffic on the unfamiliar Autobahns, especially in the rainy weather.
AFTER ROLLING ONTO Autobahn 5 heading south from Heidelberg, I quickly gained some confidence in the hoopty’s ability to maneuver through the swift traffic and keep up with the fancy foreign cars capable of traveling almost at the speed of Star Trek’s Enterprise. But, I became increasingly pissed at the super fast sports cars splashing rainwater on my windshield, which zoomed by the hoopty with a WHOOSH and scared the crap outta me. Too bad I didn’t have an Army Scud missile locked and loaded on the front bumper of the hoopty. BOOM! Take that, you speed demon.
HEARING THE ENGINE HUM like a brand new Beamer, I felt confident that the hoopty would get me to Illesheim without breaking down. Autobahn 5 was heavy with evening traffic as was Autobahn 6 heading east towards Stuttgart and Heilbronn. So far, I had been driving for about an hour and was proud of myself for riding out the somewhat stormy weather. From Autobahn 6, I took Exit 40, which led me to my other exits.
AS DARKNESS FELL, the rain-slicked, dimly lit two-lane roads took on a more ominous tone, leading me through tiny, deserted villages that resembled ghost towns from the old Wild, Wild West. Thought it was 7:30 at night, none of the houses I passed had any interior lights on, which would indicate that the inhabitants were probably fast asleep. Everything seemed to be locked up tighter than a drum. I refocused on the road, but the farther I drove, the scarier and gloomier the unfamiliar two-lane roads became.
WHEN I ARRIVED at another village just outside of Bad Mergentheim a few minutes later, the rain eased up slightly. Recalling my route on the map, I knew that Illesheim was about 45 minutes away. This timeframe gave me some comfort to know that I was that much closer to my destination.
I SLOWED DOWN as I approached red and white railroad crossing barriers, behind which lay a bank of railroad tracks. Since the barriers were up for cars to safely cross the railroad tracks, I continued driving, thinking that I would be on my way to the next village.
FOR SOME ASININE REASON, I miscalculated the road clearance because of its slickness and low visibility. Erroneously, I veered slightly to the left, which forced the vehicle to run up on some type of ramp that I did not see. This action sharply propelled the Beamer upwards and jerked me up from my seat. When the car landed back on the ground, I bumped the top of my head on the roof of the car, but the tight, sturdy seatbelts restrained me and saved me from any serious injury. I landed hard back in my seat, but the Beamer bounced and shimmied like a bowl of fresh jello. Oh, oh! I didn’t have a good feeling about this. I wasn’t sure of exactly where the car had landed. I thought it was still on the road. It wasn’t. I didn’t know it at the time, but the hoopty was straddling the railroad tracks just off to the left side of the road, which put the hoopty in a prime position to be broadsided by an oncoming train from either direction.
THE DRIVING ERROR immediately killed the engine and drove the hoopty into some kind of a profound, cosmic shock. And how did I know this? Because when I tried to restart the engine, it failed to turn over. Instead, the engine screamed a high-pitched whine, which sounded like I had just run over a cat. I looked to my right out of the passenger window and saw torrential rain drops vigorously bouncing off the slick, black road where the car should have been. DAMMIT! I took in a deep breath and exhaled it slowly while resting my head on the steering wheel. Seconds later, I snapped upright in my seat and somewhat came to my senses. After quickly assessing my situation and realizing the location of the hoopty, I was stunned. Shaking my head vigorously from side to side, I asked myself, ”What the fuck just happened”?
OH, MAN! Gathering some composure, I tried to restart the engine again, but it just sputtered and coughed like an old man with a severe case of chronic emphysema. So I thought I’d wait a few more seconds before trying to restart it. Suddenly, a frightening drama began to unfold before me. I felt adrenaline starting to pulse through my veins like a stream of oil leading to a roaring fire.
AS IF I DIDN’T HAVE ENOUGH SHIT TO DEAL WITH in trying to figure out when and if I could start the car to get it off the damn tracks, another load of it hit me. The red and white barrier came down in front of the road to block all traffic attempting to cross the railroad tracks. Then the red warning lights started flashing furiously, indicating that a train was on its way. SHIT! Piling an incredible amount of shame on top of my unbelievable embarrassment, I distinctly heard the caution lights yelling at me each time they flashed: Blink ‘you bonehead,’ blink ‘you bonehead,’ blink ‘ you bonehead’! Unfortunately, the hoopty was hemmed in, perilously straddling the tracks to the left of all this activity. But, I knew that I needed to move the heap quickly before the oncoming train smashed it, with me in it, to smithereens and on to kingdom come.
AMAZINGLY, I kept my cool and hadn’t panic just yet. I tried the engine again, but its sound clearly told me to just ‘back the fuck off!’ I looked to my left and saw the white light of a train’s engine as it steadily headed right towards me still sitting inside the hoopty, which was still straddling the tracks. DAMMIT TO HELL! I tried the engine again, but it was still deader than Chris Christie’s political career. My mind went blank for a split second, but the impending disaster snapped me into thinking, “How the hell am I going to explain the damage the train would undoubtedly make to my friend’s car? How would I even pay for the damage? Thinking that this could be the end of my life as I knew it, I realized that I wouldn’t need to explain anything to anybody because I wouldn’t survive a crash of this magnitude and live to tell anybody about it.
SUDDENLY, an eerie, calm peacefulness washed over me. For no explicable reason, I turned my head to the left again and focused on the engine’s white light, which grew larger and more threatening as the train approached. I thought I was going to die and that the white light might be my glorious path to heaven. With my mouth open wide enough for the Titanic to sail through, I felt my eyes momentarily spring in and out of their sockets like I was in some fucking freakish Warner Brothers cartoon. Strangely, I didn’t hear any train whistle, which I’m sure the engineer would have engaged if anything was on the tracks blocking his train’s path. I sat in the car with my ass frozen stiff in the seat. Why? I don’t know. I can’t even tell you why today. Teetering on the edge of unconsciousness, I felt my legs become numb and immovable. But I distinctly remember seeing that the train’s engineer had poked his head out of the engine’s window. Undoubtedly, he wanted to verify what he was seeing: an idiot sitting in a car on the adjacent tracks. As the massive steel horse got closer, I became terrified when heard the ear-splitting noise of the train’s approach and felt the ground and hoopty tremble as if we were in the middle of an earthquake. Though the train’s engineer still had his head out the window, I couldn’t see his face clearly, but I’m sure he was probably both shocked and amused at my bizarre but harmless situation, which he could clearly see but I couldn’t.
MORE JITTERY THAN A NERVOUS CHIHUAHUA AT A FIREWORKS SHOW, I didn’t scream. Surprisingly, I didn’t pass out either from the shock of an impending disaster. I gawked in awe as the imposing black engine charged towards me. With billowing steam spewing from its smoke stack and its cars following dutifully behind it, I prayed and braced myself for the inevitable. And I waited for the crash that never came. Incredibly, the train easily rolled by on the tracks behind me. Divine intervention? More than I knew. Profoundly relieved, I exhaled a sigh of relief, blowing out enough air that would immediately blow up a balloon. I just sat there, staring at the train rolling by, watching it through my side and rear-view mirrors. The poor hoopty shook helplessly as the train thundered along on the tracks behind us. And I distinctly heard that bitch of a train taunt me with, “SUCKER! Had ya fooled, didn’t we?”
At that moment, the disaster that almost happened was too close of a call for me to laugh off. But I knew instantly that God really, really had a wicked sense of humor. Still dazed and confused for a few more seconds, I regained some semblance of consciousness to wipe away the profuse sweat which had accumulated all over my face. It was at that moment that I made a pact with myself. Wisely, I decided not to tell a living soul about this big blunder, not even my good friends who owned the hoopty. Only God and I knew what a bonehead I proved to be, and that’s the way it’s been ever since then.
So after the tracks became clear, the barriers retreated back up, and the red blinking lights faded away. I looked to the right to watch the train disappear down the tracks. As if adding insult to no injury, the fucking little red caboose had the nerve to wave goodbye to me.
I turned the key in the ignition and thanked God that the car started up right away. More divine intervention? Damn, right it was. With the engine running, I tried a few back-and-forth movements with the hoopty before I could successfully rock it out of its embarrassing spot and move it off the tracks and onto the road to my right.
After driving a few minutes more, I winced as the putrid, sewer-like air from the farmers’ fields filled the car. At least this ‘fresh air’ kept me focused and my head clear, and that’s when I knew I was closer to my destination. I finally arrived in Illesheim about 20 minutes later. My friend and her mom and kids welcomed me with open arms, hugs, and kisses. When my friend asked me how my trip was, I told her I had no problems whatsoever. Of course, I lied and decided to internalize my embarrassment. She knew me well and could see it in my face that I was visibly shaken by ‘something.’ She never asked, and I never told her what really happened.
Though I didn’t drink hard liquor, I gulped down three shots of 40%-proof Asbach-Uralt (German bourbon) my friend offered me to calm down my electrified nerves. My visit with them was heartwarming and a welcome relief from the accompanying boredom of being single on another Army tour. But before leaving, I checked the hoopty make sure it sustained no damage from the ‘side trip’ I took on the railroad tracks. And for my return trip to Heidelberg, I got an early start to make damn sure that I would be driving back to Heidelberg during daylight hours. Since then, life has been good.