The House of the Rising Sun

In early 1964, the British Invasion of the American music scene was still strictly a Beatles affair. The amazing British soul singer Dusty Springfield broke into the Billboard Top 40 in July, but didn’t reach the Top Ten. That changed in the summer of 1964, when Newcastle garage rock band The Animals, fresh off of a tour of the United Kingdom with Chuck Berry, came to America to capitalize on Beatle Mania.

The Animals, particularly lead singer Eric Burdon, played a decidedly different version of Rock and Roll than the Beatles. Their gritty take on rhythm and blues started the “Anti Beatles” movement within the British Invasion. Their first No1 hit in the UK, “Baby Let Me Take You Home” takes a very different path than the similar Beatles song “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. The Rolling Stones popularized and built a 50 year career on what The Animals started.

The Animals’ distinct take on Rock and Roll is nowhere more evident than in their signature song “The House of the Rising Sun”. It’s a bluesy soulful song about a man who lost himself in the whorehouses and dive bars of New Orleans. Eric Burdon’s deep howling voice, Alan Price’s haunting organ riffs, and Hilton Valentine’s indomitably classic and instantly recognizable Les Paul guitar riff swept America and sunk everything on the Beatles “Hard Day’s Night” album, then ruling the charts. On 6 September 1964, it hit No 1 on the US charts, the first non-Beatles British song to do so.

Taxi S’il Vous Plait! The First Battle of the Marne

Germany’s plan in the event of war with both Russia and France in the beginning of the 20th century was to defeat France with the Schlieffen Plan and then concentrate on Russia. The Schlieffen Plan was named for the former German Chief of Staff Count Alfred Schlieffen. The idea was to let the French advance in the south and then seize Paris unexpectedly from behind from along the Channel coast. First, German armies on the left in the south would fix French forces in Alsace/Lorraine and the Saar, and even allow them to advance. Using this as a hinge, the Germans on the right in the north would swing like a door through Belgium, then along the channel coast, then finally down around the concentration of French forces and seize Paris from behind. On his death bed in 1913, just before the First World War, Schlieffen’s last words were, “Keep the right wing strong!” (The attack through Belgium and along the Channel coast.)

Unfortunately for Germany, the egos of the various German commanders couldn’t accept their roles. The prestigious commands were obviously on the right (those that were to seize Paris). These went to two very competent, but not very ambitious commanders: Generals Karl Von Buelow and Alexander Von Kluck. The commander on the left wing, i.e. the one who was supposed to let the French advance so they would be encircled by the right wing, was a very ambitious and out spoken Erick Von Falkynhahn. Finally, the commander in East Prussia, the stately Paul Von Hindenburg who was pulled out of retirement for the job of facing the Russians, also had an outsized influence on the Schlieffen Plan.

When the war started, the Russians mobilized much more quickly than expected and the proud Hindenburg refused to abandon East Prussia. So he essentially bullied the Chief of Staff, Helmuth Von Moltke the Younger (the Elder was his uncle who won the Franco Prussian war in 1870) for more forces. Naturally, they needed to come from Falkynhahn for the Schlieffen Plan to work. But Von Moltke was not his uncle. At the mere suggestion of giving up troops, Von Falkynhahn threw a fit, so Von Moltke the Younger took them from Buelow on the right wing, Moreover, Von Falkynhahn couldn’t contemplate the possibility of letting the French advance into his territory: It would look like he was losing in the newspapers. So instead of defending as per the Schlieffen Plan, he attacked… and kept attacking… and kept winning… and winning some more. Von Falkynhahn insisted that Von Moltke reinforce success, not Von Buelow who couldn’t even reach the sea without over extending himself (thanks to Hindenburg). More importantly though, Falkenhahn’s success pushed the French back – towards Paris.

Despite Schlieffen’s dying words, the German right wing was so weak that in the beginning of September, 1914, instead of attacking Paris from behind (north), Von Buelow and Von Kluck could only attack it from the front (east). Von Moltke still thought this would be good enough to seize Paris, except that Falkynhahn was too successful. Von Falkynhahn had basically bulled his way through the horrible terrain of the Ardennes forest, and was now spent. The French facing him were then in a perfect position to be sent to face Von Kluck and Von Bulow, a short cab ride away.

On 5 September 1914, the French commandeered 600 Parisian taxi cabs in a desperate attempt to move troops to the front along the Marne River in order to save Paris from the Germans. In actuality, only about 6000 French soldiers were ferried to the front in cabs, but afterwards hundreds of thousands would claim it. For the next week, more than one million British and French fought 1.5 million Germans to a standstill in the First Battle of the Marne. By 12 September, the German advance was stopped and Paris was saved. Over the next month, the front was solidified, and millions of soldiers dug their trenches. The war of maneuver was over , and the war of attrition began. The front line, which extended from the North Sea to Switzerland, wouldn’t change significantly for another four years.

Pennsylvanians in Paris

On 25 and 26 August 1944, Charles DeGaulle gave uncomfortably long victory speeches to crowds of hundreds of thousands of Parisians. Not once did he recognize any of the other allied countries whom had a role in France’s or Paris’ liberation. At least thirteen Allied countries had soldiers fighting on French soil, and besides the French, four others: the British, Poles, Canadians, and Americans, were directly involved in the liberation of Paris. This incensed the normally unflappable Gen Eisenhower, who devoted almost all of his efforts to keeping the allied coalition functioning.

Eisenhower directed the Allies to have another victory parade on the 29th, and that every Allied unit heading to the front move through Paris, if practical. The first unit enroute to the front east of Paris was the US 28th “Keystone” Infantry Division made up of soldiers from the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. (They would only receive the nickname “Bloody Bucket” from the Germans in the vicious fighting along the Siegfried Line and the Huertgen Forest later in the year.) Their commander, MG Norman Cota, directed that most of the 18,000 Pennsylvanians march in one imposing, and intimidating, mass formation, 28 abreast, with loaded personal weapons. It was to show the Parisians, and DeGaulle, that the war was not being fought by France alone, and that millions of soldiers from around the world were also fighting to liberate France and defeat the Germans.

The Battle of Heligoland Bight

The British Navy was bored. The British Army just won a “great” victory on the continent against the advancing Germans at Mons. (But they were forced to retreat when the French on their flank fell back, 250 miles.) The stalwart British Army was the talk of the court and newspapers, while the Navy… patrolled the North Sea.

On 25 August, 1914, two British commodores were sitting around over a glass of whiskey just thinking shit up, because that’s what field grade officers do when they’re bored. They devised a plan to ambush one of Germany’s destroyer flotillas. They would send three submarines to surface off of Heligoland Blght, deep in German territorial waters. German destroyers would have to respond. Waiting for them would be the commodores’ own destroyers and a few cruisers. It would be a cracking good time.

Three days later on the 28th, the submarines surfaced, were spotted, the Germans responded, and the British flotillas ambushed them. It went exactly as planned, except that the late summer North Sea fog reduced visibility to two miles. The clean and orderly “Crossing of the T” envisioned by the commodores turned into a melee in the fog, consisting of a dozen separate duels. The Germans immediately sortied a light cruiser force. The British risked losing the battle altogether.

Fortunately, there were other bored British naval officers. At a dinner party on the 26th, Adm Beatty heard of the plan from First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who just approved it. Beatty wanted in on some of the action too. He wired forward to Scapa Flow to get his ships ready, and then raced back to the port. But he didn’t tell anyone.

Just as the chaotic battle was beginning turn against the British, a beautiful sight emerged from the mist: Admiral Beatty’s six heavy cruisers and six big battlecruisers. Commodore Tyrwitt would remark “they looked like a line of elephants amidst a pack of wild dogs”. And the Germans, to continue the animal metaphors, “scattered like cockroaches”. In minutes the battle was over. The Germans had three cruisers and a destroyer sunk, and seven more ships heavily damaged, almost all by Beatty. And the British had one cruiser and two destroyers slightly damaged.

In an age of dozens upon dozens of giant dreadnaught battleships on each side, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, a very minor action by small ships, had outsized influence over the war. As the British celebrated, Kaiser Wilhelm was convinced by the battle that the British could not be defeated at sea, and ordered that the German High Seas Fleet be kept in port except by his express permission. The war at sea from then on would be fought by German U-Boats and not by German battleships.

The Battle of Bladensburg

In 1813, British Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane captured Tangier Island off the coast of Virginia, and from there staged raids all along the Virginia and North Carolina coasts. After a brief respite during the winter in the early months of 1814, Cochrane returned. That April, Emperor Napoleon I abdicated the French throne, and tens of thousands of British troops were released from Europe for service in North America against the fledgling United States, whose war the British considered a mere sideshow. The Duke of Wellington assigned Cochrane 5000 of his best troops under Maj Gen Robert Ross, all veterans of the Peninsular Campaign, for operations against Americans. Ross’ brigade’s first operation was to neutralize the American Chesapeake Flotilla in its anchorage. Commodore Joshua Barney, who only had about 400 sailors and marines, fired his ships and withdrew toward Washington DC. Ross then advanced to Upper Marlboro, for where he could advance on either Washington or Baltimore.

US Secretary of War John Armstrong vehemently assured President James Madison that the British would attack Baltimore as it was a far larger city and much more economically important. Washington was only a city of 8000 and Baltimore was major commercial and shipbuilding center. However, Washington was the American seat of government and Europeans could not fathom a country continuing a war with its capital in enemy hands. Ross marched on Washington.

The defense of Washington was entrusted to Gen William H Winder, a political general (nephew of the governor of Maryland) and one who was just recently returned to service after a prisoner exchange. Winder had few regular troops other than Barney’s men and his militia was slow to mobilize. He called for all militia to concentrate on Bladensburg, about 9 miles northeast of Washington (a 1 ½ hour drive today). The first to arrive under BG Tobias Stansbury dug in on Lowndes Hill which commanded or protected the crossroads from Washington, Baltimore, Georgetown and Annapolis, to include the bridge and fords over the Anacostia River. Stansbury was in a strong position but abandoned it to when Winder sent his order to concentrate on the other side of the river, otherwise, he felt, he’ll become isolated and destroyed. Stansbury withdrew to a brickyard where he was unable to cover the river which allowed the British to cross unimpeded. Stansbury’s initial disposition provided the rallying point for Winder’s converging command, and eventually its defensive position.

Winder’s regulars of the 1st Infantry Bn, and 1st Sqdn of Light Dragoons, Maryland militia, Washington militia under BG Walter Smith, Barney’ sailors and marines, and members of the government all massed at Bladensburg. President Madison, armed with two dueling pistols, Sec. Armstrong, and Secretary of State James Monroe joined Winder’s command, and promptly began tinkering with his dispositions. Five different “commanders” shuffled the American army around, none correcting the flaws in Stansbury’s initial set. Monroe’s changes were most egregious, as he moved some of Stansbury’s men too far back to be of use. Even worse some of the militia from Washington were unarmed as they’d been promised muskets by Winder. Some were given muskets but had to return their flints because a supply officer needed them recounted. In summary, the Washington militia was partly unarmed, most of the Maryland militia was exposed, the American artillery could not support them, and there was a large gap left between the Maryland and Washington contingents.

When Ross arrived across the river outside Bladensburg on 24 Aug 1814, Winder’s dispositional flaws were readily apparent for all British officers to see. The view of the American lines from the bridge was better from the bridge than Winder’s position. Ross’ advanced guard under Col William Thornton quickly seized the moment and crossed the river. Thornton drove straight at the gap between the Maryland and Washington militia. Winder with some Maryland troops counterattacked Thornton’s right but repulsed. As Thornton was about turn Smith’s left flank, he was assaulted by Barney’s marines and sailors whom checked his advance. For a moment it looked as if the British initial advance was stopped. However, Winder thought Thonton was about to turn Smith so he ordered Smith to withdraw to close the gap. At this moment Winder’s retreating militia routed as a volley of Congreve rockets sailed overhead which terrified the militiamen. Their disorganized retreat caused the rest of the army to break. Barney’s men didn’t get the order and fought on, but the retreat swept away Barney’s supply wagons, and they eventually ran out of ammunition.

The American army, almost 5000 strong, disintegrated. Its chaotic retreat was memorialized in an 1816 poem as the “Bladensburg Races”. The militia streamed back through Washington. Their presence was the first sign to First Lady Dolly Madison that the battle was lost. She was preparing a victory dinner for the President and 20 guests when informed of the imminent arrival of British troops. Dolly Madison attempted to save as many of the White House’s valuables as she could, and even had a copy of a life sized portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart saved. She had the White House gardener break the frame and cut it out, just before the British arrived. After her and the government’s hasty departure, some Washingtonian opportunists looted the White House and the government buildings which the British chased off. Ross and his officers dined on Dolly’s dinner as their men set fire to the government buildings. After the meal and many toasts using the Presidential crystal, they torched the White House, then known as the “Presidential Palace. The Capitol building, Treasury building, War and State building, and the Library of Congress were also destroyed. Ross spared civilian homes and the Patent office (after being convinced that the patents were privately owned), and the Marine Barracks, in recognition of Barney’s spirited defense at Bladensburg. Rear Adm Cockburn, Ross’ second, went to the office of the National Intelligenser newspaper and confiscated all the “c’s” off the printing press, so the paper couldn’t print stories about him.

That evening, a bad thunderstorm and tornado eventually forced the British to quit the capitol and return to their ships, and this was when British discipline broke down and widespread looting and pillaging occurred by the retreating British. The President stopped at a tavern that night and slept in the homestead of a Quaker family in Brookville MD that night.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

July and August 1939 were months of furious negotiation between Germany, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Poland, and the United States in order to secure alliances which it was hoped would deter war. The first sign that all was not going to be well for the Poland and the Western Allies was when Stalin fired his Jewish foreign minister in April and replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov. Russian archival documents confirm that this was day that Stalin decided to ally with his “brother Socialist” Adolf Hitler in order to defer the inevitable conflict with Germany to a later date.

On 23 August 1939, Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union and Hitler’s National Socialist Germany signed a non-aggression treaty, named after their respective foreign ministers: Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ostensibly an economic and political treaty of non-aggression and prevention of either country allying with third parties e.g. Poland, Britain, France etc, the pact had secret provisions to divide up Eastern Europe between them. Germany would be free to seize most of Poland and have a secure eastern frontier for the inevitable fight with France and Great Britain. The Soviet Union was given assurances that they could conquer Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Eastern Poland, Finland, and Bessarabia (Eastern Romania, Romania was one of Germany’s allies) without German interference.

Germany invaded Poland a week later, and started the largest and bloodiest conflict in human history: The Second World War. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact turned the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and National Socialist Germany into de facto Allies when the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east two weeks later on 17 September 1939. The Soviet invasion rendered a rapidly stabilizing Polish defense against Germany untenable. At the end of the month, both countries affirmed their alliance in the German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation.

The 23 August anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is remembered in Europe to “reconcile its totalitarian legacy” (EU’s words). In most of the EU 23 August is known as the “Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism” or in some countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, as “Day of Remembrance of Victims of All Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes”. In the United States, 23 August is known as “Black Ribbon Day” to

“recognize the victims of Soviet Communist and Nazi regimes and remember and never forget the terror millions of citizens in Central and Eastern Europe experienced for more than 40 years by ruthless military, economic, and political repression of the people through arbitrary executions, mass arrests, deportations, the suppression of free speech, confiscation of private property, and the destruction of cultural and moral identity and civil society, all of which deprived the vast majority of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe of their basic human rights and dignity, separating them from the democratic world by means of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. The extreme forms of totalitarian rule practiced by the Soviet Communist and Nazi regimes led to premeditated and vast crimes committed against millions of human beings and their basic and inalienable rights on a scale unseen before in history.”

The Battle of Blenheim

In 1704, Louis XIV reigned over France’s Golden Age. France was at its most influential, and he was easily the most absolutely powerful man on the planet. With the death of Spain’s Carlos V, Louis was poised to place his grandson, Charles, on the vacant thrown. This paved the way for a Franco-Spanish Union which would marry French military strength with Spanish New World gold and create the world’s first hyperpower. The rest of Europe could not allow this, and they declared war in what was called The War of Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War (after the British monarch) in North America.

In the Spring of 1704, Louis ordered an invasion of Austria, one of the key members of the opposing Grand Alliance. Prince Eugene of Savoy, knowing his army could not face the Franco-Bavarian horde alone, asked for aid from his life long friend: John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough.

Through a simple deception operation, Marlborough disengaged from the French in the Low Countries and marched his Anglo-Dutch army 500 miles into Bavaria, picking up troops from allied German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire along the way. On 13 August 1704, Marlborough and Savoy’s Anglo-Austro-Dutch-German-Prussian-Imperial Army met Marshal Tallard’s Franco-Bavarian Army at the village of Blenheim on the Danube.

In the linear tactics of the day, the fight on the flanks was usually decisive, and Tallard reinforced his to the detriment of his center. Marlborough recognized the flaw and tied down most of the French with Savoy on the right and the rest pinned in the village on the left. By the afternoon, Tallard was sufficiently committed, and Marlborough struck at the center much as Napoleon would do 100 years later at Austerlitz. The French broke, Tallard was killed, and his army was destroyed.

The Battle of Blenheim was the turning point of the War of Austrian Succession. The war would be carried into France the next year. Louis would eventually fight the war to a draw and still place his grandson on the Spanish throne, but France’s power would be broken and Spain’s decline as a world power accelerated rapidly, giving rise to a global British empire. Finally, and most importantly, the Battle of Blenheim was the high watermark for Divine Absolutism as a viable form of government, at least until the rise of Socialist dictatorships in the 20th Century.

The Breakout From Normandy

In the last week of July 1944, the Allies were still stuck in Norman hedgerow country, and they needed to break out because they were far behind schedule. Also, the Soviets were nearing Warsaw, and Churchill feared the post war ramifications of the Soviets invading Germany while the Allies were still stuck in France. The Allies fell back on good old American firepower and devised Operation Cobra.

On 25 July, the entire Eighth Air Force and British Bomber Command carpet bombed a narrow 6km portion of the front near St. Lo. After which the US VII Corps, including the US 1st Infantry Division, charged through. Unfortunately, of the 2000 bombers, 80 dropped their bombs short and caused serious friendly casualties including a US 3 star general (McNair), and disrupted the follow on attack. The bombers pulverized German defenses but the attacking troops soon encountered a situation that would have been very familiar to their fathers in World War One: the devastation was so great that the attackers couldn’t move or bring up supplies over the terrain fast enough before German reserves were brought in to defend the shell holed moonscape left behind by the bombing. Fortunately, most German reserves were tied down by companion British offensives. By August, the Germans were pushed out of the hedgerow country and the Americans were poised to breakout of Normandy.

On 1 August, Operation Fortitude, the deception to convince the Germans the Allies would land at Pas de Calais concluded when LTG George Patton’s 3rd Army was activated on the continent (The Germans were convinced Patton would lead the landings at Pas de Calais). By 4 August Patton had broken out of Normandy and was tearing ass across France…in the wrong direction. Patton broke out, but he did so by going west into Brittany and toward the Atlantic coast, not east towards Paris and Germany. It took another week or so for Patton to turn around and attack in the right direction.

Hitler, ignorant of the true situation, saw an “opportunity” to destroy Patton and ordered an offensive of 13 panzer divisions to seize Avaranches and cut off the 3rd Army from Normandy. Only four were able to participate and they didn’t get very far. On 9 August Montgomery launched Operation Bluecoat and then Operation Tractable to cut off this German attack that threatened to cut off Patton’s attack. Eventually, Gen Von Kluge called off the western offensive when it was obvious (to everyone except Hitler) his troops were driving further into a trap as Polish and Canadian tankers closed in from the north and Patton closed in from the south.

On 13 August, Von Kluge ordered the retreat expressly against Hitler’s wishes in order to save as many panzer troops before they were encircled in what would later be known as the Falaise Pocket. The Allies had broken out of Normandy, permanently. The race was on.

Why Should Physicists Study History?

Why should physicists study history?

Just as physics is not a list of facts about the world, history is not a list of names and dates. It is a way of thinking that can be powerful and illuminating.

Some things about physics aren’t well covered in a physics education. Those are the messy, rough edges that make everything difficult: dealing with people, singly or in groups; misunderstandings; rivals and even allies who won’t fall in line. Physicists often do not see such issues as contributing to science itself. But social interactions really do influence what scientists produce. Often physicists learn that lesson the hard way. Instead, they could equip themselves for the actual collaborative world, not the idealized solitary one that has never existed.

History can help. An entire academic discipline—history of science—studies the rough edges. We historians of science see ourselves as illustrating the power of stories. How a community tells its history changes the way it thinks about itself. A historical perspective on science can help physicists understand what is going on when they practice their craft, and it provides numerous tools that are useful for physicists themselves.


Research is done by people. And people have likes and dislikes, egos and prejudices. Physicists, like everyone else, get attached to their favorite ideas and hang on to them perhaps long after they should let them go…

The Rental

The Rental is an older tale from the life of Ski. It is a tale of woe and deprivation, courage and cowardice, glorious ups and crushing downs, life’s bitter lessons learned, thoughtless preparation and ingenious improvisation, but ultimately, it is a tale of hijinks and tomfoolery.

The tale of The Rental was a series of events culminating on one weekend in the summer in the mid nineties. That year, I was a 19 year old soldier stationed in Germany, full of piss and vinegar and I was determined to make my presence felt in Europe. I was assigned to A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Regiment of Dragoons, otherwise known as the Alphaholics of 1-1 CAV. Only the leadership referred to us as Apache Troop, to the soldiers we were the Alphaholics and we were always “On the Warpath.”

You must understand that this was the early nineties and the days of the New Hollow Army of the early Clinton Years. Training, due to lack of funds, was an ad hoc affair of bullet counting, (we were only issued 87 5.56 rounds that year to qualify on our M16s) fuel limits (just enough to get to gunnery and back, so we could say we were “qualified”) and lots of studying (I can still recite the tasks, conditions and standards of every soldier skill level one task….backwards). The only issues we had to worry about army-wise were sexual harassment witch hunts (both kinds, remember these were the days of Tailhook and Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell), whether the section sergeant was going to give you some “wall to wall counseling”, (no such thing as “physically abusing” a private in those days) and making sure someone in your group brought some ketchup to the chow hall (They always ran out two days into the month. To this day, I occasionally enjoy a hot dog with Thousand Island dressing on it).

Our post back then, Armstrong Kaserne, consisted of just our unit and a chemical company and could easily fit inside the parking lot of a high school football stadium. But that just meant that the big brass was 50 kms away and they were generally too lazy to make the trip to bother us. I can only remember the general visiting twice in in three years. Armstrong Kaserne was located next to the sleepy little town of Buedingen Germany. “Swingen Boo-dingen” was a one horse burg with a neat castle, a couple of bars, and unfortunately, a train station where the trains didn’t stop on the weekend. If you wanted to go somewhere on a train you had to catch the last train out of town on Friday at 1700 (5 p.m.) and the first train back on Monday morning at 0500 (5 a.m.) It wasn’t very conducive to the wanderlust of a 19 year old.

Now I wasn’t much of a looker back then, but I was in shape and what I lacked in comeliness I more than made for with perseverance and determination, combined with the courage that can only be brought on by copious amounts of hefeweissen. Every blue moon I’d pull off what amounted to coup d’etat on some unsuspecting European girl. One such coup occurred during the Nimegan Marches.

The Nimegan Marches is a yearly event in which militaries all over the world send any soldiers stupid enough to want to participate in the pain. It was a race that consisted of four days of ruck marching 25 miles a day through the Dutch countryside. For the mathematically challenged, that’s 100 miles. And at the end of those four days you got a medal, bragging rights, and all the beer you could drink at a party that lasted a whole weekend. It takes place in Nimegan, Netherlands (hence the name) of A Bridge Too Far fame. (Sorry, I am a history major)

Anyway, at the Marches, I managed to connive my way into the good graces of Dutch girl named Wilhelmina, while dancing my booty off at a random techno club downtown. It was fun while it lasted but definitely more than I bargained for. Back then, THE DUTCH LOVED AMERICANS. Willy, as she was fondly known, and her hot friend Uterus, would have bore our children had we so wished. By the end of the weekend, I had met Willy’s entire extended family, her whole street, had the keys to her parent’s house and could use them anytime I or any of my friends wanted. We ate the fridge clean and drank her dad’s bar dry and he thanked us for it. Then he restocked them for when we returned.

Now I don’t want anyone to think I was taking advantage of young Willy or her countrymen’s generosity. The feeling was mutual: I LOVED THE DUTCH. And I knew I was going to come back and the next weekend I did. (The weekend of my 19th birthday, coincidentally) Now you must be asking, “How did you get there? You bored us before with train schedules…..Ah, the title, you rented a car…” Wrong! I say!

Making just $600 dollars a month, there was no way any of us could afford a rental on a regular basis, so we did what soldiers in Germany have been doing for forty years: we bought a beater. It wasn’t just any ordinary beater, it was our beater. I still to this day consider it my first car just because I pitched in 50 bucks with 4 other guys to help pay for it. It was a beaut too, a master work of German engineering. It was a 1981 smurf blue Opel Astra, with 150,000 miles, 40 previous owners and didn’t have a muffler or a starter. What we lacked in essential parts we made up for with manpower. Ergo, we had to push start the “Smurfmobile” everywhere we went. This pretty much mandated that at least three people were in the car when it went anywhere. One to steer, one to push, and one to make sure the beer bottles didn’t spill. And as everyone knows, three constitutes a party. The Smurfmobile was four wheels of traveling fun. (For the record we were crazy careful about drinking and driving, we just never did it, it was the quickest way of getting kicked out of the army next to offending someone and for all the training we didn’t do, the army was still the best deal most of us had.) In Germany back then, drinking and driving wasn’t illegal, drinking and steering was illegal – the passengers could do shooters in the back seat just the driver had to be sober.

So after the second weekend of Willy, her family and all of her friends’ generosity, the word began to get around the barracks that Ski had a pretty good racket going on in the Land of Tulips and Windmills. It also got out that Willy was planning a party for us this coming weekend. It was going to be a super special weekend in the ways only the Dutch could think up. So like the good soldiers we were, we spent the week planning our next excursion.

We quickly deduced we had a problem: there’s no way we were going to get ten of us in the Smurfmobile, 7 max. It was a long three hours to Tulipland and we needed room in the trunk for ‘provisions’, specifically beer and bologna sandwiches. In one of his rare moments of intelligence, Mad Dog Mike D, a fellow Pittsburgher by the way, originally came up with the idea of renting a car. Under normal circumstances this would be dismissed handily, it was too expensive. But we figured the money we were going to save by ravaging the Willy family household for foodstuffs and nourishment would easily outweigh the expense of the car. So we fired up the Smurfmobile and trekked to Hanau to reserve a car at the Budget joint next to the big PX. Most summer weekends they quickly ran out of cars but our decisiveness and forethought paid off. We managed to secure a burgundy Ford Escort. We were in business.

All week, you could feel the excitement. Ricky Bell, our perceptive and mildly sadistic section sergeant, knew we were planning something big because we were extra good all week so we wouldn’t pull IC detail that weekend. (“IC Detail” was punishment for minor stuff that required more than push-ups or an ass beating but less than an Article 15. IC Detail involved showing up on Saturday morning with the First Sergeant so he can walk around going “I see cigarette butts, pick them up.” “I see that the wall needs painted.” “I see the grass needs cut”….you get the point.) We were so good that week that he couldn’t find anything wrong or if he did, it was so minor he knew we’d call bullshit and mutiny. The best he could do was threatening us with piss tests when we got back. Which didn’t bother us, we had piss tests all the time and we weren’t stupid enough to do drugs anyway.

The final Friday formation came and it seemed as if The Space Cowboy’s (Our troop commander) safety brief lasted forever. Don’t do drugs, wrap that rascal, don’t beat your wife blah blah blah, we heard it a thousand times before. He must have known we’ve been spending a lot of time in the Netherlands lately (he did) because he said wrap it and don’t do drugs at least four times. By the time the 1SG finished saying ‘fall out’ we were halfway up to our rooms to grab our stuff.

Five in the Smurfmobile and five in the Escort, (We picked it up during lunch) we divided up and we rolled dice for the unenviable position of driver. “One Slice” Soma from Oklahoma, was the driver of the Escort and I was the navigator. (Not that we needed one, we made this drive three times already and we were cavalry scouts for Christ’s sake) The other Escort passengers were my roommate Kingsley (a cow farming, basketball playing, Golden Gophers fanatic), Maddog Mike D, (Fellow Steelers fan) and Nascar Owen (Red Man, Budweiser, Nascar and big frickin hats was a pretty good description of Owen.) I was the proverbial Ski, if you haven’t figured it out yet. Stertz, Rathbun aka “The Axe”, Pope, Madcap Johnny F and Sal Sally would follow in the Smurfmobile.

We took account of our supply situation: Toothbrush, towel (very useful), 20 pack, and extra t-shirt per man, a full five gallon water can, two loaves of bread, 2 packs of bologna and 3 cases of Bud Dry. (Remember that experiment? It was $3 a case at the PX, we had truckloads of it stacked in our rooms that year) Deeming ourselves sufficiently prepared we took off, burnin’ up Autobahn 3 toward Tulipland and what we were sure was an orgy involving Willy and the Nimegan women’s soccer team. (We could dream couldn’t we?) There would be no stopping for the obligatory beer and photos at the border. We were on a mission. We lost the Smurfmobile relatively quickly in our accelerator induced frenzy to the Netherlands. It didn’t matter though, we would meet them there.

Now we might have been a hollow army, but we were still damn proud to be soldiers and even more proud of being AMERICAN soldiers. We just won the Cold War, kicked the livin’ shit out of Iraq, Somalia hadn’t happened yet, and the liberal guilt complex of the nineties was still in the future. Combine this with being young and indestructible and that made us just a wee bit obnoxious. Obnoxious enough that flying a full sized American Flag on a broomstick out the back window of the car was standard practice on road trips. So as we were toolin’ down the road in the left lane at 100mph, a big ass American flag hanging out the side, Mike D, Kingsley and Owen (riding bitch) enjoying a warm one, listening to Metallica’s Black Album on our sexy car stereo cassette player, we knew this was going to be one for the books. (The Necronomicron perhaps)

About halfway there, a car load of Gunters pulled up to the right of us. They were flying a German Flag! How dare they infer Germany was greater than America!?!?!? We beat the piss outta them in, not one, but two wars! We wouldn’t stand for it. The speed duel began. It was Ford vs. BMW. The New World vs. The Old. Then the insults began, quickly followed by beer spray on each other’s car, which in turn lead to throwing garbage at each other, and eventually empty beer cans. All at 100mph, it was a great time.

Now there was no way we were going to let them beat us but we were coaxing about as much out of the Escort as that Detroit Piece of Shit could muster. Nascar Owen, being the consummate back seat driver, and since he was stuck in the bitch position couldn’t do anything anyway, kept telling Soma how to drive. “Drop it into 4th, get the rpm’s up, then jam it into 5th and we’ll smoke them bastards!” he cried. We knew the Germans were screwing with us; the Beamer could leave us in the dust anytime they wanted. But it was a matter of pride and we were out of empty beer cans and trash so we got desperate. Soma, to his everlasting shame, implemented Owen’s plan.

Whether or not it would have worked was a topic of great debate, because unfortunately we will never know. Soma, in the excitement of the moment didn’t drop it into 4th gear, he dropped it into 2nd. A hideous and horrible sound emanated from under the hood, a mechanical sound so revolting that all future hideous and horrible mechanical sounds would be judged by it. (Two years later it was still, “That sounded bad, very Escort-esque.”) Soma immediately announced that he could not accelerate anymore and eventually we coasted to the side of the autobahn choking on the dust and laughter generated from the Beamer.

We got out, opened the hood and stared at the engine. And that’s about the limit of what we could do. I could take a Bradley apart with a Leatherman, but I didn’t know dick about cars. Eventually even Owen had accepted that we needed professional assistance. Remember this was ’93, there were no cell phones for the common man. Before we could do anything though, we spied the distinctive coloration of the Smurfmobile chugging up the autobahn at 65mph. We welcomed the big mufflerless lawnmower sound of our beloved Opel and heartily believed that they would tow us the rest of the way. (Yea, right) Once they stopped laughing, the Smurfmobileers said they would call ADAC (German AAA) for us. (Yea right) Just before they rolled off, Pope stuck his head out the window and said “We’ll take care of Willy for ya and tell her you said Hi.”

The idea of trusting our fellow adventurers to actually call ADAC proved to be very naïve. After an hour we went looking for one of those orange roadside assistance phones you see on the autobahn. We found one, yelled “kaput!” into it and waited for the cavalry to arrive. Another hour later a yellow ADAC station wagon pulled up and an old Gunter mechanic got out who smelled like he used schnapps for deodorant. You gotta love that sickly sweet old world smell. He spent all of 30 seconds looking at the car, pointed at it, and said “Kaput!” He then made the motions that he was going to tow us somewhere.

We all piled back in the car, assuming that he was going to tow us to the ADAC car hospital and in twenty minutes we would be back on the road. Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case, maybe they don’t work on Fords? Anyway, he dragged us to the next ausfahrt (exit) and stopped in a castle parking lot on the outskirts of the town of Kervenheim. Everyone got out, assuming he needed to piss or something but all he did was stow his tow cable, point at the Escort and say, ”Kaputt!” then he waved and left.

Then, as if God was mocking us, it began to rain.

But we were used to adversity, we were Americans dogonit. We were gonna figure a way out of this and make our rendezvous with the women’s soccer team. So we put our brains together to come up with a plan: Unfortunately all we came up with was we’d call someone for help. But on the positive side if it worked we would be on our way and there by midnight, besides the real partying didn’t start until then anyway. There was still time. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was the best we had. But this plan had several prerequisites:

  1. We needed a phone. 2. We needed someone to call. 3. We needed change for the call. 4. We needed Soma to not start drinking.

We had none of these.

Once it started raining Soma started a Bud Dry I.V. He, being the Okkie that he was, already felt bad enough about messing up the trip but now he thought he was going to have to buy a new car for Budget. It was a situation that wasn’t conducive to sobriety. On top of that we only had guilders (Dutch money before the euro) and no marks (German money before the euro) for the phone. Speaking of phones, we couldn’t see any, anywhere near at least, especially through the rain and now fogged up windows. And finally, we had no one to call: ADAC already made their position very clear; Pope was probably shoulder deep in Willy by this time, and we damn sure weren’t going to call back to Buedingen for help. It’s bad enough the Smurfmobileers saw us. So we did what anyone would do in our situation:

We got drunk.

Once we had finished a few, the cramped conditions in the car became worse than the thunderstorm so we got out and had a regular par-te complete with wet T-shirt contest right there in the parking lot. The rain didn’t bother us much and eventually someone said lets go look for a bar. Hopefully, hope being a method in this case, the Burghermeister Meisterburgher bartender could tell us where an ATM was. Being optimists, we believed the good people of Kervenheim would take us in or at least their daughters would. But first we had to find a bar and it was getting dark fast.

It was immediately apparent that this wasn’t your Bavarian dorf which reeked of Teutonic beer laden merriment. Kervenheim was a dark and dismal place where the thunder felt at home and the lightning gave brief glimpses of the horrors not seen in the daylight. As we walked down the streets we could see and hear the Kervenheimers closing their shutters and locking their doors. “You can smell the fear, they must have werewolves here, or worse,” someone muttered. The aimless and ultimately fruitless wandering eventually brought us back to the castle:

Like it was calling to us.

The “Palace” at Kervenheim was a large late baroque mansion, but in the darkness, silhouetted by the lightning it could easily pass off in our blurred vision as Dracula’s Castle. Boredom, liquid courage, the natural aggressiveness of the U.S. Cavalryman, and not too mention a possible dry sleeping area, overcame any fears we had so we set off to explore the grounds of The Haunted Mansion of Kervenheim.

Dun Dun Daaaa!

Our exploration had an ominous beginning, almost immediately we met our first denizen of the mansion. A “man” walked down the steps towards us and as he passed, Mike D stopped dead in his tracks and whispered, “He had no face” then louder, “Holy Shit, he had no face!” I thought it was just a bald guy who was looking down at his keys on his way to his car, but the more I thought about it, Mike was right: He had no face. If he was messing with his keys, where was his car? There was nothing but emptiness between us and the houses beyond. We were the only car in the parking lot! The next strike of lightning sealed it. But we weren’t too freaked out yet, besides fear is natural and even welcome. If we saw another faceless demonic mansion dweller, we would confront it and send it back to Hell.

Our travels took us to a fork in the path; actually it was more like a chicken foot. Straight ahead went to the mansion grounds where we sure there were more faceless demonic mansion dwellers; left and right were winding forested paths that took us parallel to the moat-like stream that surrounded the mansion. We dared not go straight, hey diddle diddle right up the middle was for tankers and grunts, we were scouts. We needed to circuit our way around the evil place in order to get a good read on our opposition. Stealthy and Ninja like.

So we went left, (Cold War logic: right=east, the bad guys are always to the east and we were trying to avoid the bad guys, for now.) but now we were in the menacing shadow of The Haunted Mansion of Kervenheim: the source of the evilness. In addition, we were all soaked, it was pitch black, and we were sure we were being stalked by more faceless demonic mansion dwellers when alas, we came upon a small shrine. God had not forsaken us; it was like something out of Diablo. It was one of the small places of worship so common in the German countryside, just a statue or a cross with a trash can and bench. It was a place for lovers to snuggle, away from the crowds of the European streets. Except in the rain and shadow of the malevolent castle, this one didn’t look well kept. Was the cross upside down? It was tough to tell but evil reeked of the place, it was best to move on.

At this point Owen pulled out his buck knife, I grabbed a big stick and a couple small ones in case I needed to put it thru some hearts, Mike pulled out his Gerber, Soma his Leatherman, and Kingsley would only move forward in some weird Karate fighting stance.

That’s when we came to The Bridge. It wasn’t large, but it was wooden, it creaked, and crossed to the other side of the moat. The Other Side of the Moat was cloaked in darkness and it looked like it lead away from the castle. But it was either that way or back toward the evil place where they were sure to be cooking babies and sacrificing virgins. So we crossed.

Training took over, this was a danger area. In order to diversify our weaponry, Owen and I took far side security; the others took near side security and overwatch. A few tense moments later Owen and I were across. Under ideal conditions we would have been a bit more cautious but They were behind us, so speed, but not haste, was essential.

The others followed with Mike coming up last. Then it happened – The Splash Underneath the Bridge. Under normal circumstances, I would have dismissed it as a water rat (very common in Germany) diving into the stream to do whatever water rats do. But Mike, in a moment of terrifying clarity, yelled at the top of his lungs, “IT’S A FUCKING TROLL! A REAL UNDERNEATH THE FUCKING BRIDGE MOTHERFUCKING TROLL!” And we took off.

I’m not sure to this day how far we ran, but our “tactical displacement” took us to that most unfortunate of places for a scout to find himself: in the middle of a field. There was nowhere to hide, neither cover nor concealment. We were dead smack in the middle of The Fiery Plains of Gehenna. We heard something barking to our back left and surely it was pack of Hellhounds hot on our trail. As we moved through the blackness in what was hopefully the direction of the parking lot, we heard a mighty “Neeeeyyyy,” from what could only be Death’s Pale Steed.

Once back at the parking lot and the busted Escort, we prepared to defend ourselves….but ended up passing out.

The next morning, the sun peaked out over the horizon in one of the most beautiful sunrises we’d ever seen. We were happy to be alive and no one talked about the hellish events of the past evening….ever. However we had to keep our strength up for when the wolves came, so that we might die, not of hunger, but in combat. Bologna sandwiches all around. Soma, being a bit older and a bit more frugal, knew we had no clue how long we would be here. He knew we had to husband our resources. “Damn you all, just one slice. I don’t care what you assholes want, in Okmogee, you only get one slice of bologna per sandwich. One slice!” he said with a trembling index finger in the air. Soma was known as “One Slice” from then on.

Rested, pickled, and fed we set off to find money and a phone. Kervenheim was much easier to navigate in the daylight and we found a nice little guesthouse where we had a beer and relaxed a bit. Then in what drunks call “a moment of clarity”, we phoned Budget Rent a Car from the bar.

That afternoon they sent someone to look at the car. I’d come to the conclusion all German mechanics are old, stink, and don’t speak any English. When he finally asked through sign language and broken English “Why the auto was kaput?”, we did what any good private would do when in a situation where telling the truth could get you more work, more explaining, or more trouble.

We shrugged our shoulders.

Well, after his autopsy, he hauled the Escort away and left us standing there on the curb, like Alice with all our worldly possessions at our feet. We felt abandoned and even contemplated calling Buedingen. So we did what anyone would do in our situation: We got drunk.

Except One Slice, formerly known as Soma, he was so relieved he didn’t have to buy a new car, that his simplistic Midwest optimism took over and he and Kingsley went back to the guesthouse to get a good meal and call Budget to see what was up. We’d make the date with our soccer team yet. In the interim, we pondered our future over a nice warm Bud Dry.
About an hour later, One Slice and Kingsley came running back yelling, “They’re bringing a car! They’re bringing a car!” And not ten seconds later the most beautiful black BMW I’ve ever laid eyes on pulled into the parking lot. That car was gorgeous, a brand new black BMW 318i with all leather interior. It had to be the rental guy’s car. A green Opel pulled in with it and we assumed that was our new rental. But alas we were mistaken: The BMW was our new car and we could return it in Hanau. The Budget guy apologized for our inconvenience, that we were valued customers and “please accept this alternative in compensation for your trying ordeal”. Thirty seconds later we were on the autobahn doing 270 kms per hour. I never had gone that fast on a highway before or since.

We finally made it to Nimegan but the racket ended the night before when one of those jokers pulled an Ugly American and ruined it for everyone. The details aren’t important but needless to say we weren’t welcome in the Willy household anymore. Oh, they didn’t blame the Kirvenheimers, but something was just….different. It was all for the best though, we had a brand new Beamer and two days to show it off. (Three day weekend) And parking lot parties became our thing for a while.

Life went on.

Eventually Willy got married to some English guy and the entire group never got together again unless it was a special occasion. But we were much the wiser, and a bond was formed in a way only shared horrors can create. The lessons learned were enlightening, the experience unduplicated, the bond was for a lifetime, but it was the unspoken rule between those of us who survived Kervenheim that truly became the guiding light that represented everything that was good in our lives. It……………………well, it’s unspoken.