The crisp, late autumn wind off the North Sea in early November was a sure sign to keep moving. Winter was approaching quickly. I had recently arrived back in Amsterdam after the first phase of what would be a extended tour of the back streets of Europe. Armed with a three-month rail pass, I had left the USA that September after graduating from college with no particular direction in mind.
For many young people, American Express offices in major European capitals served as convenient places to meet up with friends, pick up mail and to listen to stories of the road beyond distant borders. In Amsterdam the main American Express office was located on Damrak near the Central Station. Before war and political unrest would ultimately close borders in the Middle East, it was possible to hook up with other travelers at these convenient locations to cross overland from Northern Europe all the way to New Delhi, a two week dusty, dirty journey by bus or car across the majestic lower bowels of the world.
On this particular day, I was standing outside the American Express office reading mail from home when I noticed a beat up VW microbus roll up to the curb. Out stepped two young blonde American women about my age who turned out to be sisters. One proceeded to pin a poster to a message board behind me requesting the services of a reputable male English speaking companion who could operate a manual transmission, and who would be willing to accompany two Iowa sisters to Warsaw in the micro bus to attend an upcoming special celebration for an aging grandmother. No payment for services was offered, however gas and food were guaranteed. The assignment called for driving in a heated van from Holland to West Germany, through the former Democratic Republic of Germany (GDR) and across the Polish frontier into Warsaw, a distance of approximately 600 miles.
I calculated that in less then 24 hours, I could be sitting at a table in Warsaw with a steaming plate of golabski’s and sausages surrounded by a grateful family of beautiful Polish men and women. I didn’t hesitate for a second, even though I knew from recent travels that winter had already arrived in the East. I would have to put my ambitions to head south on hold for the time being.
Before anyone else could read the poster I ripped it from the message board and sold myself to the sisters as their trusted companion and protector. Within an hour I collected my backpack and we were on our way heading east on A1 toward the German border. Spontaneous decisions always appealed to me, especially those that grabbed fate and threw reason to the wind. What could go wrong? I could not imagine.
A few hours out of Amsterdam the sky turned a purple grey and light snow began to fall. Still, I was in a warm van eating snacks and listening to happy stories about what it was like growing up on an Iowa farm. I imagined great feasts and loving cousins waiting to greet us in Warsaw for Grandma’s birthday celebration. We crossed the West German border without incident and drove into the heart of that divided nation.
In 1976 West Germany and the GDR were still postwar twins separated by fortified borders and starkly different political systems. Communist GDR was a frightful place of grey, polluted, industrial cities and a hopeless population of citizens wishing to be anywhere but there. Poland was only marginally better as the Soviet Union remained the warden and gatekeeper with its heavy boots on the necks of their subjects. I was about to understand once again the ramifications for hapless travelers who blundered into the jaws of this demented but very real world.
The snow increased in intensity as the temperatures fell. The day was now in our rear view mirror as we plowed ahead into Germany. By this time, I would have married either sister if only to be able to eat the dishes they described, or to visit their farm in Iowa where corn bread is worshipped, and apple pie is second only to good whiskey by the jar.
It was my turn behind the wheel somewhere east of Hanover when I suddenly realized that we were fast approaching the restricted zone of the GDR border. Ominous signs in multiple languages warned drivers to slow down and be prepared to produce travel documents. Travel documents? All of a suddenly it occurred to me that I might need a transit visa to cross the GDR and likely the same to enter Poland. This was still, after all, the height of the Cold War.
After waiting for an hour at the border, a young armed guard who looked like he had been dressed out of the back door of a B movie casting trailer approached my window and demanded documents. My companions produced their documents quicker then a wet kiss leaving me to explain myself all alone to Heinz.
When one’s fortunes suddenly change, it can seem like time stops completely as the mind races to make sense of what is happening. In my case I was swiftly ordered out of the van and told that it was not possible to obtain the required travel documents at the border crossing up ahead and that I would have to immediately return back across the restricted zone in the direction from which I had just travelled. Just glancing at the faces of my new rosy red-cheeked friends confirmed what I already knew. There would be no golabski’s and sausages for me, no warm embraces from a welcoming extended family, and certainly no marriage in an Iowa cornfield. A few minutes later I was standing in no mans land by myself watching the tail end of the VW bus receding into the night.
Miraculously, a sympathetic lorry driver slowed down to pick me up. An hour later I was in Hannover at the main station waiting for a train back to Amsterdam. By midnight, I was wandering the streets of the City searching for a place to get out of the cold and a bed free of fleas and with some luck, hot water to sooth my frozen bones. The winter winds that greeted me earlier that day on the road east in the van followed me like a lost dog back to Holland, freezing what had been such a sunny disposition just a few hours earlier into a block of ice.
I managed to find a small hotel in the red light district and convinced the night manager, who I had to wake up, to rent me his last room down the hall on the ground floor. I paid him his fee and surrendered my passport that he placed in the bottom drawer of his large oak desk. Before I reached my room I could hear him snoring, head flat on his hairy crossed arms, dreaming of tulips.
I entered the room that contained a small bed covered by a grimy quilt, a side table, chair and a picture on the wall of Queen Juliana. A door leading into a cramped combination shower stall and toilet room completed the accommodations. All things considered I was thrilled to be out of the cold and safely inside a warm room. I turned the shower on to let the water run to hot. As I began to undress, I decided to first remove the picture of Queen Juliana off the wall and place my special cartoon character “Fred” directly on the wall behind it with a magic marker that I kept in my pack for this exact purpose.
By this time in my life I had left “Fred,” a simple face of a human like creature, in multiple countries and in nearly every state of the United States, often on interstate highway guardrails. Fred is permanently affixed to a wall inside the Tower of London, the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles outside Paris and etched into a tree 100 miles above the Arctic Circle in Norway. I’m not proud of this; it’s just what I do. I saw no harm in tagging Fred onto the wall of my room behind the picture of the Queen.
After quickly completely the drawing (typically 5 seconds) I attempted to replace the picture on the wall, only to have the nail fall away onto the floor between my feet. I attempted to hammer it back into the wall with the heal of my boot. That’s when things got really interesting. As I pounded the nail large pieces of plaster fell off creating a hole much larger than the painting would have concealed. At this exact moment I realized my foot was wet as the shower had now overflowed into the small bedroom, and was quickly mixing with the fallen plaster into a thick gumbo of sludge. I don’t recall panicking but I knew I had to go and I did so with gusto. I managed to shut off the water that was now up to my ankle, covering the floor of the room in warm slime. I got back into my boots and grabbed my backpack and coat that thankfully still rested on top of the dry bed. At most, only ten minutes had elapsed from my entering the room to my now sudden departure.
I knew I still had to retrieve my passport. Because I was likely the last guest in that evening, it would be on top of the pile in the night managers’ desk drawer. I crawled on my stomach as quietly as I could down the hall, commando style, pulling my backpack slowly behind me. When I reached the front desk I held my breath, and carefully opened the drawer as the night manager snored away from above. I removed my passport as delicately as a carny pickpocket.
Never looking back, I escaped into the frozen November night.
An evening spent on a cold bench in a railway station waiting for a train can either break you or make you whole. In my case, it sent me directly onto the first train I could find heading southwest through Paris to the sun filled streets of Madrid, and the adventures still to come.
Postscript: A few days later while on a train somewhere in northwestern Spain, I learned from a newspaper headline that the long shot outsider candidate Jimmy Carter had been elected President of the United States. Go figure.