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:
- 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.