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The other night some friends had an “Oktoberfest” – where they blocked off the street in front of their house.  There was bratwurst, sauerkraut, potato Salad, and of course, beer.  On top of it all, was this overwhelming oompah music.

It’s funny, as I was writing this story – I realized there was a theme in it that I hadn’t even noticed –

It took me back many years – the last time I was in Munich, when our friend Martin, his brother Wolfgang, my sister and I drove down there from the Ludwigsburg area where we lived, and took in the sights.  We went to the park they’d made for the 1972 Olympics, went up the tower.  You could see the BMW Museum from there, so we went to visit that, where I discovered that they absolutely don’t like you touching the artifacts (since I’m an official airplane nut, I was looking at, and in this case touching, a WWII airplane engine – I’d just reached out to touch it when I heard a very loud, very German voice on the loudspeaker shatter the otherwise almost reverent silence of the museum.  I looked up and froze.  The camera that had been aimed at the engine was now aimed straight at me, with a red, almost laser like light on it that made it clear I’d been both spotted and caught.

Yup… Deer in the headlights, that’s me.

It was very clear that I was to keep my hands off the merchandise…

The tone in the fellow’s voice made it very easy to imagine that in a control room somewhere, a security guard must have been marking a little notch in what would translate as his gunbelt… “Yep, got another one…”

I was embarrassed, and not just a little terrified, but what could I do?  So we left.  By this time it was afternoon, and went to the German Museum where they had all sorts of exhibits and displays, and for whatever reason we started at the bottom, and were in the middle of this exhibit on some kind of ancient Babylonian or Mesopotamian stuff when the lights started flashing and we thought either there was a power outage or – then the siren went off.

I figured I’d touched something wrong.

Again…

Turns out it was neither.

It was the fact that the place was closing down, and of all things, at 4:00 on a freaking Tuesday.  With me being the aforementioned airplane nut, instead of going straight for the airplanes, we’d wanted to see everything, and were planning on saving the best (airplanes) for last.  When I heard on the loudspeaker the rough German equivalent of “Attention K-mart shoppers, the store will be closing in 5 minutes, please take your purchases to the checkout stand.” – okay, so it wasn’t K-mart shoppers, it was all of us who’d come thousands of miles to see the exhibits, only to find out at the last second that the place was closing before we could see everything.  On that realization I just about went nuts and tore out of the Babylonian exhibit into the lobby area.  I looked around, found the signs to the second floor and tore up this huge curved staircase to the second floor where the airplanes were.  I was running so fast that it’s possible to truthfully say that I ran rings around a V-2 Rocket (okay, so the rocket was in the center of the curved staircase I was taking two and three steps at a time), and I arrived panting at the door of the hall the planes were displayed in just as a rather burly, and fairly stubborn guard locked the door from the inside.  (Note: you don’t get much more stubborn than German stubborn, unless you’re talking Hungarian stubborn – don’t ask me how I know this 🙂

I tried to plead my case, but my Schwäbisch accent was no match for his Bavarian accent and attitude – and he was the one with the key in the lock.  I could only look through the now smudged windows at the planes I’d come to see, neither realizing, nor being able to convince the guard, that this might be my only chance to ever see them.  He didn’t seem to care.  I remember seeing a two seater Me-262 and the only Do-335 in the world – oddly, without the swastika on the rudder, like most planes of the time had had – but then I realized, even then, that the echoes of WWII were still there, and the law was clear: absolutely no swastikas – even if they made something historically accurate.  You couldn’t even buy a model WWII airplane with the right decals…

Once the doors were closed, there wasn’t anything else to do there – I was so frustrated at the time I don’t even remember taking a picture of anything.  Wolfgang, Martin, and my sister showed up about then, and, knowing that this was something we – especially I – had wanted to see, they tried to get me out of my funk… I mean, getting kicked out of – well, “encouraged” to not come back to the BMW museum until I could behave was one thing… Having the dang exhibits in the German Museum close in my face was another.

We were hoping to not make it a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of thing, but I was seriously frustrated.

It was hard to acknowledge it at the time, but aside from that, we’d had a pretty good day.  We’d driven well over 100 mph on the famed Autobahn, to the point where slowing down to 60 when we got into Munich made us want to get out and push, we’d seen priceless works of art, items that were literally one of a kind on the planet – and – it was almost as if Ferris Bueller had taken a day off and gone to Munich, instead of going to Chicago.  Somewhere in there we got onto a subway and got out at the Marienplatz in the square in Munich and watched the famed clock tower (or Glockenspiel) strike, I think it was 5:00 in the evening by the time we got there – and our friends, realizing it was dinnertime and still trying to help overcome the last Museum bust, wanted to take us to this place they called the “Hofbräuhaus

We were tired, had done a LOT of walking, and were to the point of not even caring anymore, but they insisted, so we went in – and were suddenly surrounded – no – immersed – in Bavaria at its finest.

To say that the Hofbräuhaus had atmosphere would be like saying water is wet, and this atmosphere was thicker than the proverbial pea soup.

First: The music.  I know there are people who think that the definition of “perfect pitch” is when the accordion you just tossed out lands on the banjo. I’m not sure how many banjos there were, and I didn’t take any pictures, but Lordy, you have never, ever heard “Ooompah” music till you’ve heard it played by a bunch of well lubricated Bavarians. (there was an accordion, a tuba, a baritone, I think a trumpet and a trombone)

Tourists like us were there, but it was the locals who were just a delight to watch.  I’d heard the song most Americans know as the “Beer Barrel Polka” – but the words were a lot different, and came across sounding more like the music here: “Rosamunde”.  (the video’s not from the Hofbrauhaus, but watch the crowd in the video to get a sense of what it was like).

It looked like the people in the band wouldn’t remember it the next morning.  In fact, it seemed the band was on complete autopilot.  Waitresses kept their steins full, and they played – well, like a well lubricated machine… it was a wonderful background to everything else.  Occasionally the crowd would join in and we’d see people standing up, arm in arm, singing their lungs out.

There was smoke from any kind of tobacco, but above it all was the astounding smell of beer.  Not stale beer from a place that’s been serving beer for the last few years and hasn’t been cleaned up, but fresh beer that’s been poured in the place since 1589.

Like for more than 400 years.

There was a sign up at the front where the bartenders were filling the 1 liter steins as fast as they could, something to the effect of “Wet Floor” – and they weren’t kidding… there was beer all over the place, and you did want to be careful to not slip on it.

Why was there beer all over the place?

Well, part of the answer lay in the regulars.  It seems that the place has special tables for them. A lot of them are pensioners who live in apartments nearby and come for the camaraderie, the social aspect, the food, and of course, the beer.  What’s surprising about them is the vast quantities of beer some of them can put away.  I was talking to a fellow who’d been there a few times, and had seen this little old man, couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, put away several liters, every evening, every time he showed up.  These are guys who by any other definition would be considered alcoholics – but there, they show up (and have been showing up) daily for years, and they have their usual table, the waitresses know them, know their orders, and keep them happy by keeping their beer mugs full.

Now those waitresses, to keep from having to make too many trips to serve a table, take as much as they can carry with every trip.  This means that invariably, some glasses spilled, some fell, some broke, (hence the  warning signs about the wet floor) but for the most part, the beer gets to where it needs to be.

So it was this expectation that helped set up our next encounter.  We were led to our table, and as the waitress came over, we realized we’d spent most of our money on museums, trips up the tower, and souvenirs.  We pooled all our money together and realized that if we subtracted the money for the souvenirs we wanted to buy there, subway money to get back to the car, gas money to get the car back to Ludwigsburg, that left us with enough for – um – one beer.

Split four ways.

Oh oh.

So one of the things that’s important to know is that a good percentage of the tourist photos show gorgeous young Bavarian women serving beer in places like this.

They’re models.

The real ones aren’t hired for their looks.  They’re hired because they can carry, over the course of a shift, hundreds of liters of beer to their customers.  They keep the customers from getting too thirsty, they keep them from getting too hungry, and they keep bringing whatever it takes to keep the customers satisfied and happy, as they’ve been doing for several centuries.

Our waitress looked like she’d been there since the place opened.

She looked tired.

And it looked, from everything we could see about her, that she’d had a day we, as tourists, couldn’t possibly imagine. She looked like we were her last table and she was looking forward to going home, soaking, then putting the feet she’d been on all day up and getting a chance to rest a bit before starting it all over again.

She just had this one last table to deal with, and at that table were four teenagers and a pile of change.

She straightened her apron out a bit as she got to our table and was all business:

“Also, was möchten sie?”

(Her words said, “So, what would you like?” but her tone said the Bavarian equivalent, “So, what’ll it be?”)

We looked at each other, swallowed, and then together, said, “Ein Bier.” (one beer)

“Also gut… Vier Bier.“

(“Right… Four beers”)

„Nein… EIN Bier.“

(“No, actually, ONE beer.“)

„EIN BIER? Da sind ja doch vier von Euch!“

(“ONE BEER? But there’s FOUR of you!?“)

She looked at us with a combination of disgust and disdain that can only be done by German and French waiters.  Add to that a look of confusion, like a mathematician who’d just discovered that dividing by zero didn’t work.  In her world, one customer = many beers, not the other way around.

We kind of stared at each other, and it was then that we realized the first rule of the Hofbrauhaus:

It is not, repeat, NOT a good idea to – um – ‘irritate’ a Bavarian waitress… I don’t care how many weights you’ve lifted, they’ve lifted more, they’re stronger than you are, and they do it for eight hours at a stretch.

As we were coming to that conclusion, the day finally got to her and she absolutely went off on us.  I don’t remember her exact words, but they translated roughly to:

“How can you possibly expect me to make any money if my customers only order one beer?  I mean, you’re sitting there taking up four spots, and only ordering ONE beer? There’s no way you’re ordering one beer, that’s not just unheard of, that’s an insult.”

Uh… right… insults were off the table.

Then again, now that she had set her expectations: “Also, was möchten sie?”

(Again, her words said, “So, what would you like?” but the tone said, “Alright, really, let’s get this show on the road… what else are you going to order that is going to make it worth my time to even see your faces again?”)

We dug deeper into pockets, wallets, whatever might have a little extra money, and ordered some kind of pork roast, some sauerkraut, and I think there might have been some mashed potatoes.

And one beer.

And oh, my, it was good.

The beer was strong enough to pack a bit of a punch, but between the four of us, none of us had enough to worry about. The pork was amazing, and the sauerkraut was something you’d just have to go there to experience.  It was amazing.  We pooled enough money for a tip, left what we could there, then headed out into what was now night..

We got to the subway, then to the car, but didn’t drive 100 on the autobahn this time.  This time we slowed down to about 80 mph.

Because it was dark.

And because it was raining off and on.

Martin wanted to be safe and drive even slower, but there’s something about German drivers and the autobahn, and by golly, they’ll drive as fast as they can.  We were constantly having to move over so that other cars could pass us.  The law’s pretty clear over there.  If someone wants to pass you, you let them.  Martin had been moving back and forth and was getting tired of it, so decided to stay in the fast lane.  One driver made his thoughts very clearly known to us by getting so close that I, in the back seat, couldn’t see his headlights past the trunk lid. Martin finally moved over, and the last thing I remember of that day was that the silhouette of a Porsche 911 with a glowing exhaust pipe as it passed us.

Oh – and we did get home.  I’d managed to save enough for one souvenir that actually survived the trip back, and that I still have after all these years.

One, genuine beer stein from the Hofbrauhaus

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It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and my son and I are visiting my mom as I write this.  Coming down here is like walking into a time machine, with all the memories and so on.  Last night, as we were heading off to the store, we passed a certain spot in the road.  “Hey, Michael, this bridge here is where the story in the Ranchero happened.”  (Yes, I was passing a car… on a bridge… I’d forgotten to mention that in that story…)

I found I was telling him stories, not just stories from some mystical past, but stories right where they happened.  And it made the stories a little more real, to be standing exactly on the spot where they happened.

And we got to talking about one particular story that happened long before the house had any reliance on fossil fuels.  When I was a kid, back before Al Gore had even thought of inventing the internet, we didn’t have cable TV, or video games, but there was always, always something to do.  There were chores constantly, and one of mine was simple: When I came home from school, I’d have to bring wood in for the rather cranky woodstove (it was simple: no wood, no heat), or – sometimes when I came home and there was no one else home, the house was cold.

Well, if the house was cold, and I was the only one in it, and if I was the one who wanted heat, then I had to build a fire in the stove.  That got interesting sometimes, as there were times when I couldn’t get a fire going for anything.

Keep in mind here – I was a teenager.

With matches.

And I couldn’t get a fire started…

In the house…

Sigh…

The idea of having a thermostat to turn up was a dream – but it was just that.  (It was only 11 years ago that we had a gas fireplace installed there for my mom.  But back when I was a kid (oh gad that makes me sound old), one day, I was both cold and impatient, and to light the stove in the living room, I got a bunch of newspaper, was too impatient to split any kindling, so I just put some wood scraps from the lumber mill in town on the newspaper there in the stove.  Sometimes I’d be lucky and actually get it to light – but this time it just wouldn’t stay lit for anything – and I was cold, and I just wanted a fire.

RIGHT NOW. 

So, operating with the Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® that is so common at that age, I got some gas from the lawn mower, and poured a little onto the wood and paper in the stove.  I then reached up to the place where the matches were…

…and realized I’d used the last of them trying so unsuccessfully to start the fire.

Oh good.

I took the gas can back outside (first – actually, only – smart thing I did) and hunted all over until I found some matches.  When I got back to the stove, I instinctively knew what had happened – the gas had vaporized to its most lethal form, and I knew that lighting it would be a bit of a challenge now – far different than the “I can’t start this fire” challenge.

Given that, and knowing that exploding gas would be a challenge to try to contain, I decided to stand to the side of the stove, with the door open instead of trying to toss the match in and slam the door shut., That way it would relieve the pressure I knew was coming, and toss the match in while I was standing on the side, away from what I thought would be a bit of a flame coming out.

So I stood to the side, with some fresh newspaper and more wood in the firebox of the stove, and I tossed the match in.

Now I don’t think I’d ever seen a rectangular flame before, and definitely haven’t since, but a flame – exactly the size and shape of the stove opening, shot about three feet out of the stove, spewing bits of wood and burning newspaper paper all over the living room.  What must have been just seconds seemed like hours as I frantically cleaned all those pieces up before they caught the rest of the living room on fire.  That would have been, um, bad…

And I would have had to explain to my mom yet again why there was smoke in the same room I coincidentally happened to be occupying. (I did have some experience with that)

By the time my mom got home that day, the fire was burning nicely.

Inside the stove.

I have no idea how I hid my guilty expression when she came home.  Maybe I was too frustrated by the whole event to feel guilty. In fact, she only heard about this years later. (actually, Thanksgiving a couple of years ago)

And of course, she was shocked.

Come to think of it, a number of the stories that are mentioned here are stories she finds out about as I’ve been writing them.  It makes for fun conversations now – but as I look back on it – the adult in me got to asking myself, the Teen With the Infinite Wisdom ®, “What were you thinking?” Or more specifically, I narrowed it down to, “Did you not see the line between dumb and stupid as you blasted past it?”

I realized that this, like most of the actions controlled by my Infinite Teenage Wisdom® were the result of simply not thinking of the consequences to my actions early enough to have them change what I was doing.

Yes, I knew that gasoline was flammable, in fact, I even counted on it.  What I didn’t count on, or expect, was that the, um, “influence” that the gasoline had, could expand to other things as quickly as it did.  No, even that’s not true… I knew it would be dramatic, otherwise I wouldn’t have stepped to the side.  I guess I was expecting flames, but not the aftermath of all the fiery bits and pieces that flew out after the flames, and I didn’t expect to have to try to put all that back in the stove.

I did some more thinking about it, and realized that the adage my son has told me many times, “To be Old and Wise, you must first be Young and Stupid.” –

In fact, there’s an old saying, with a corollary right along with it:

“With age comes Wisdom”

“…but sometimes, Age comes alone.”

So how do I learn from this as an adult now?  Well, I’m still human, still capable of making mistakes with the best of them, but at least I’m working on learning from the old ones and using those lessons to learn how to make different new mistakes, (instead of repeating the same old ones over and over.

And I guess that’s it, huh? Learn from your mistakes, because if you don’t, you may as well just soak the mistakes in gas and throw in the match, because in the end – well, – cleaning bits and pieces of what you were trying to do will be very much like trying to put a burning fire back into a fire place, and that, my friends, is hard.

Tom Roush

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