Have you ever noticed how sometimes, when little things start going wrong, these little things can snowball into bigger and bigger things? This is a true story about one of those times. In this story, the snowballing effect never quite accumulated to the disaster point for my family, but it almost did.
It was the first week of August, 1978. My wife and two younger sons were arriving at Frankfurt am Main airport after taking a summer break at home in Texas away from life on U.S. Army casernes in Germany. I was then serving as an officer in the headquarters of a Field Artillery Brigade located in Giessen, Germany. Giessen is in the central region of what was then still referred to as “West Germany”. Prior to this, the family and I had spent the first two years of our European tour on a caserne in southwestern Germany, a place called, Göeppingen. Because of the transfer, we were put on a waiting list for “permanent” quarters in Giessen, and my wife did not want to spend any more time in temporary quarters. I couldn’t blame her for that. Living in “temps” had been a nightmare for us, lasting for over three months after we had first arrived for our “accompanied” tour.
While my wife and younger sons were gone, my oldest son, Jonathan, product of a previous marriage, arrived to live with us for awhile. He and his mom were on the “outs” at the time. Jonathan, everyone calls him, Jon today, was thirteen then and wore his hair near shoulder-length. This would become a constant issue between the two of us over the next two and a half years that he would live with us. He wore tight, bell-bottomed jeans that were so long he walked on their frayed pant leg bottoms. What would challenge us most about Jon, however, was his overdeveloped, premature sense of independence and an attitude of defiance — which was probably why he wasn’t in his mother’s best graces at the time. Never- theless, I was delighted at the prospect of having my whole family together and thought that a family vacation would be just the thing to help us meld as a “unit”. I was always thinking in military terms then. I had lots of leave time coming, so I planned a multi-country driving tour that would involve camping out, using our huge, dark blue, customized Chevy van both for travel and for shelter.
Waiting at the airport for the rest of my family to arrive, Jon and I talked about the trip idea. To him, it sounded like a “cool” thing to do, so he was up for it. I told my wife, Natalie, about my idea in our van on the way from the airport to our new, well, not-so-new permanent quarters. She was a bit skeptical at first, wanting more to settle into our new home after being away for most of the summer. But, as soon as she learned that our good “stairwell” friends, the Sawyers from our previous assignment in Germany, would be traveling to some of the same locations at the same time, she got excited about it too. Of course, our two youngest sons, Tommy and Timmy, were excited about it. It promised to be a real adventure. They would be camping out, sleeping in a tent with their new big brother who they obviously adored.
Timmy, our curly-headed youngest, was three at the time and one of the sweetest little guys there ever was. Before meeting his oldest half-brother, Timmy walked in the shadow of his older brother, Tommy, imitating, or trying to, everything that Tommy did. Tommy, our middle boy, resented Timmy’s copycat behavior and sought to distance himself from his little brother anyway that he could. This was something that I figured was just normal sibling behavior, but it troubled Natalie. On the bright side, Tommy was a precocious yet well-behaved seven year old who was quick to make friends and more than willing to try his best at every new challenge. A very good student, Tommy had fallen head-over-heels in love with his teacher in the third grade.
A Bad Omen ~
Things started going wrong soon after we started out – little things at first, then bigger and bigger things. We camped the first night in a military campground outside of Freiburg, Germany. The plan was to drive from there through Switzerland seeing Zurich and Bern, then Italy, seeing Florence, Pisa and Rome, then coming back to Germany through Austria, being sure to see Innsbruck on the way. But we got a late start leaving the campground. Losing the stem to my watch, it had stopped ticking even though it was a Timex and had not taken a licking of which I was aware. We should have recognized this as a bad omen. But we thought it was no big deal. As a consequence we slept-in the next morning. No problem, we thought. We’ve got all the time in the world. We were on vacation and didn’t need to meet with the Sawyers in Florence, Italy for another two days. So, we dilly-dallied, finally striking camp around noon, having brunch and doing some shopping at the local PX before hitting the road again. After all, I did need a new watch, and the boys needed some “munchies” and some things to be entertained with in the back of our converted van. Accordingly, we didn’t get to the German-Swiss border that day until mid-afternoon. Getting there, stopped at the border to check our passports and travel orders, we learned from the border guards that my leave travel orders did not include Switzerland as a country authorized for us to visit. Italy and Austria were on the orders, but Switzerland was not. This was an oversight on the part of my unit’s personnel clerk who typed the orders, but it was my own fault. I had failed to confirm the accuracy of the orders. So, there was nothing we could do. We had to turn around to spend another night at the Freiburg campsite. We would have to deviate from our plan, missing Switzerland altogether, driving through Austria both coming and going to get to Italy. Now the rush was on.
Stopping the next day only for a late roadside lunch in a Austrian moun- tain pass, we hurried on into Italy so that we wouldn’t miss our planned meeting with the Sawyers the next day. As it was getting dark, we missed seeing some of the most spectacular scenery in the world coming down out of the mountains into Italy’s Po River Valley. But alas, I thought, we’d catch it on the way back. Before the sun went down, we caught a glimpse of the Italian countryside. Unlike the road- sides of German and Austrian autobahns, which were spotlessly neat, devoid of a single piece of litter anywhere, the main Italian autostrada connecting the country from north to south looked like the aftermath of a rock concert.
We pulled off the autostrada into a commercial campground outside the city of Verona. The campground’s attendant, a bit “miffed” by our late arrival and skeptical about whether our huge American van would fit into the small camping spaces to which Europeans are accustomed, accepted our payment anyway and led us by flashlight to the one remaining space. There was just one word for it: tiny.
“Think you can fit us in there, dad,” my thirteen year old asked.
“Don’t see as that we have much choice but to try, son,” I answered. “How ‘bout you get out and be my ground guide while I back-in?”
As I maneuvered in the cramped space, Jon suddenly called out for me to stop but not in time. The side of my van tore off a small window, too small for me to see, cranked out on our neighbor’s small camping trailer. Immediately, the entire camp was awake and surrounding us, talking in at least three foreign tongues, mostly Italian. We could tell that they were disgusted with us, and I can imagine that they were thinking, Ostentatious Americans, driving such a huge, gas-guzzling vehicle, and spoiling our quiet evening!
Not able to speak much Italian, we tried our limited German. I tried a little of my college Spanish, most of which I had long forgotten. No luck. Their voices got louder and louder while the owners of the damaged trailer started screaming at us, pointing to the damage, then to open palms indicating that we would have to pay for our carelessness. Totally frustrated, my wife finally blurted out, “Doesn’t anyone here speak English?” A moment passed, then a woman stepped forward offering to negotiate for us. Kind as she was to offer, she was actually more help to the Italian family whose trailer I had damaged. Before everyone was satisfied and had returned to their own campsites for the rest of the night, my wallet was completely empty.
Trouble on the Autostrada and More Bad Luck ~
The next morning we set out for Florence to meet with the Sawyers. We were expected at noon. Since I had done all the driving up until now, Natalie offered to take a turn on the Italian autostrada. Unlike German autobahns on which there are no speed limits, there are posted speeds on autostradas, but they are high, eighty miles per hour on straight-aways. But we were trying to make up for lost time, so I think Natalie must have been doing almost ninety when the right-rear tire blew. Panic! The van started swerving wildly. One of the boys in the back, maybe both of the younger ones, screamed. It was that scary. We almost flipped over sideways. But Natalie did a great job of not losing her cool. I feared that she would, but she didn’t. Cool-headed under the circumstances, she heeded my measured advice not to hit the brakes. I had to force myself not to scream directions at her. Finally we coasted to a stop on the autostrada’s soft shoulder.
Natalie spoke first, “Boys, are all of you okay?” After their answers, one by one, a full three minutes must have passed in total silence before anyone said anything else.
Attempting to change the wheel to our spare, the jack sank into the shoulder’s soft surface and buckled even before I could fully tighten all the wheel’s lug nuts. Bent out of shape, it would not do its job the next time that it would be needed it to change a wheel. Now we were in trouble. If we were to have another flat, we would be out of cash and without a spare or even a jack to change the wheel if we did. Worse still, we’d be on the side of a road in a foreign country with none of us able to speak the local language. Taking over the driving again, Natalie was still shaken from the experience, I slowed our pass down considerably. Fortunately, just before we got to Florence we found an Army-Air Force Exchange Service garage that took my credit card for a new tire and jack. But the snack bar next to the garage would have nothing to do with my credit card so that I could feed my family lunch. They made do instead on “gold fish” crackers, other leftover munchies, and only water to drink without complaining.
We drove around for a time in Florence looking for a parking space large enough for our van. Then we got a break. A space opened up right in-front of the polizia municipale (city police headquarters) building near the center of town. We were now only a short walk away and a few minutes late for our agreed upon meeting with the Sawyers. Everyone was in high spirits. Natalie could go shopping with Franny (Mrs. Sawyer), while the boys and I could get some real Italian food with Gary (Mr. Sawyer) and his daughter Pauline. The Sawyers’ son, Greg, was still a toddler so he would go with his mom.
By now we were all starving. Only I was going to have to get some Italian lire first, using my credit card again. With foreign exchange rates in Europe down to about half what they were for the dollar when we had first arrived, I realized now that this trip was going to be a costly one. I began to worry about all that Natalie would decide this day that she just had to have. But she knew all too well about our budget limitations.
We had a great time that day with the Sawyers, shopping, eating, seeing Renaissance architecture and art, including the famous statue of David by Michelangelo. Just enjoying Italy’s Mediterranean climate with our friends was wonder- ful. So we vowed to spend more time with them on our return trip through Germany. We would spend a night with them in Göppingen. However, as we walked back to our van, the mood changed dramatically, Jon raced ahead and poked his head through a hole in the van’s sliding side door, a hole that had once been filled with glass. Right in front of the city’s police depart- ment, someone had stripped the rubber insulation from around the window, set the glass on the pavement next to the van, then ransacked through our belongings. Fortunately, we had left nothing of any real value behind (we had no money left to hide), taking our one valuable item with us, my almost new 35mm camera. But we had been violated and our van was further damaged. We would have to drive all the way from Florence to our next stop, Camp Darby near the famous city of Pisa on the west coast of Italy, with the wind howling through the van. We would have to drive slower, so we would be on the road most of the day, and we would have no air conditioning. We were all, well… “bummed-out” about the way things were going. I remember thinking, What else could go wrong?
You’ve Got to Be Kidding ~
When we arrived at Camp Darby, the campsite director informed us that we did not have a reservation. “Didn’t anybody tell you that this is the height of the traveling season for NATO soldiers, family members, and DA civilians from all across Europe?” Gulp!
In addition to being perhaps the best-known vacation site for U.S. personnel stationed in Europe, it is also home to 26 different Army, Air Force and Department of Defense tenant activities. But all we wanted was a place to setup camp for the night.
“You’ll have to go into overflow,” the camp director told us. “No hook-ups or other facilities. You’ll have to walk a quarter mile to the nearest restrooms, there’s no water safe to drink nearby, and the beach is almost three-quarters of a mile away. Also, you can’t leave your camp setup while you’re all gone to the seashore during the day, and you must strike camp by 10:00 AM.”
What else could go wrong? What couldn’t go wrong? My lack of planning and attention to detail, not thinking ahead, was turning this trip into a real mess. Disgusted with myself, I would spend most of the rest of the next day trying to fix our van’s side window while the rest of the family enjoyed the warm Mediterranean waters and mild breezes of the camp’s famed beach. That night, with van’s windows open, mosquitoes nearly ate my wife and me alive. Our boys, sleeping in a side tent, were eaten alive. Our youngest, Timmy, the most tender and juicy target for these pests, got the worst of it.
Striking camp myself the next morning, the window repaired – sort-of, I drove off in the direction of the beach. Parking as close as I could, it took me only a few minutes to find my family. Natalie was reading something, the two younger boys were playing in the surf, and Jon was goggling everything on the beach in a bikini. Lunch time, the boys came running up from the water’s edge asking if they could have some pizza. “Pizza?” I asked, “Where are we going to get pizza?”
“He’ll be back in a bit,” said Natalie. “There’s been a vender going up and down the beach all morning.”
Sure enough, a few minutes later, here he came again crying out, “Pizza from Bologna! – Pizza from Bologna!”
The pizza wasn’t warm and it was, well… kind of soggy. Not like American-style pizza at all, it was cut into small squares rather than slices, and it was mostly tomato with very little cheese and no meat toping. Altogether, after paying for enough of it and drinks to go around for everyone, it was time for me to hit the bank again for more lire. The boys didn’t seem too disappointed though. After lunch, they started playing together, the two younger ones burying the oldest in the warm sand. Natalie and I heard them giggle frequently after lunch, despite their mosquito-bite welts and worsening sunburns. They had a great time mocking the pizza vendor’s accent each time he passed with an echo to his constant call, “Pizza from Bologna!” I imagine today that the poor man must have been developing a rather poor impression of Americans, if he didn’t already have one.
We setup camp in overflow again that night. With the window back in-place, Natalie and I were a bit more comfortable in the van. The boys, out in their sleeping bags and tent, were doused in Calamine lotion for their mosquito bites and sunburn. They looked like marshmallow Easter bunnies. This time, we sprayed the outside of their tent with insect repellant before they turned-in and we had some mosquito netting for the tent’s opening. In the morning, we would strike camp again and head for Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower.
After breakfast, we spent time clowning around the Leaning Tower. The boys, of course, were disappointed that people were no longer allowed to climb the tower’s spiral staircase and drop things from the top as Galileo did to test Isaac Newton’s theories about gravity. Time seemed to get away from us that morning, so we were rushed to get to the train station for the published departure time of the express train to Rome.
At the parking lot, I gave the attendant extra lire to make sure that our van would be secure and I stayed back to tell him what had happened to us in Florence. The rest of the family rushed inside, Natalie taking money for our tickets. We did not want to miss the express train, otherwise we’d be all day getting to Rome. The ticket agent assured my wife that the express had not yet left the station and that we would have plenty of time. But we hurried onboard anyway, finding an empty cabin. The seats in the cabin were hard, wooden benches.
“Dad,” Jon asked, “do you really think the parking lot attendant will keep an eye on our van?”
“Probably not,” I said.
Then we sat there… and we sat there, the train not leaving at the scheduled departure time. Half an hour later I found the conductor, who, fortunately, could speak passable English. “Why haven’t we left yet?” I asked.
“Patience, signore” he said, “We will parta soon. We are but a few minuti retardati – late. Cargo is still being – how do you say – caricardo.” In Germany, I thought, the trains are famous for being on-time. Not so, apparently, here in Italy.
“Minutes?” I asked, “We were supposed to be on our way over half an hour ago.”
“Let me see your… your biglietto… your ticket, signore,” He said. “Oh, you are supposed to be onn’a the green line, il esprima a Roma– the express. That train, she leav’a just now.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
I looked out the window. Sure enough, the express that we had paid extra to be on so that we could be in Rome by early afternoon was just leaving the station, now more than half an hour late. We had mistakenly boarded the whistle-stop. It would take the rest of the day for us to get to Rome. When I told the rest of the family this, with our train still sitting there, each had their own way of expressing frustration. My oldest boy, Jon, half under his breath, said, “Pizza from Bologna.”
An hour later, after arriving at our first stop, my family and I were joined in our cabin by an Italian gentleman who had just boarded. “Ciao, state andando a Roma?” he asked.
“Excuse me? We speak no Italian.” I said with my “keester” growing numb on the hard bench seats.
“Ah, Americani!” he said. “Are’a you going ala the way to Roma – la seda del papa?”
“Yes,” I said. “Are you also?”
“Si, si… la seda del papa. The home of’a mi papa – the Pope,” he said, assuring us all with a smile.
Jon once again said, “Pizza from Bologna.” And we all laughed.
“Excus’a me?” Our new traveling companion asked.
“Never mind,” I said, “family joke.”
“Oh, ho’kay…” he said, “uno scherzo della famiglia– joka of’a you famili. I understand.”
Outside on the train platform, an elderly woman was hawking wax-coated cardboard cartons of drinking water. “Acqua potabile, lire dieci!” she cried, “Acqua potabile, lire dieci!” Several travelers crowed around her beneath our cabin’s open window buying what she had to sell.
“Honey, the boys and I are thirsty. Could we…?”
“Sure,” I said, glad for the excuse to stand up. I counted noses, then looked in the direction of our traveling companion, pointed to him and then to the woman selling the water. “Would you like some too?”
“L’OH, nessun li ringrazia – no thank’a you,” he said, waving his had back and forth with a smile a gratitude that I would even think to ask. “The home of’a mi papa,” he reassured me again.
I caught the attention of the water lady, holding up four fingers, “Quattro acque soddisfano,” I said, haltingly, not sure at all of my pronunciation. But she got the drift. Not being particularly thirsty myself, I thought that I might save back a few of my remaining lire, just in case. Flashing all ten of her fingers at me four times, she indicated that I should pay her forty lire first. I handed her a hundred lire note and accepted two cartons of water. Handing them to my wife, I turned back to the woman reaching out for our two additional cartons and my change. They never came. The train started pulling away from the station.
“Per favore, sinora!” I said, trying some simple Italian. She smiled and just walked away.
The water, I was told, was warm, but wet. Little Timmy was confused by it. Since it came in small cardboard cartons, he thought that he was going to be drinking milk when Natalie offered some to him.
“The home of’a mi papa,” said our traveling companion with a smile.
“Pizza from Bologna,” said Jon.
After four more whistle-stops, our train finally arrived at the train station in Rome. We were so excited to finally be someplace and off that damned train. Each of us grabbed our suitcases and stepped off into “the home of’a mi papa”.
See Rome and Die ~
We found someone inside the train station that was able to give us directions to the USO in Rome. It wasn’t far, we learned, from the Vatican, a place that we definitely wanted to include in our sightseeing the following day. We would have to board a bus for a short ride, as it was a bit too far for us to walk carrying suitcases. We had enough money for this, but little else – maybe enough for a simple meal for all. Because we were almost out of money, we had to go to the USO directly. There, I reasoned, I’d be able to cash a personal check or use my credit card to get some more cash. Being late in the afternoon, the banks were all closed, and this was a long time before the advent of ATMs.
We got off the bus at the right place… directly across from the entrance to the Vatican. There was no mistaking that place. But we got the directions we’d been given from there mixed up somehow. Instead of going one block straight, then two blocks to the left and another half block to the right, or whatever, we did something else. We must have zigged when we should have zagged. Damned suitcases, you know, even small ones, get mighty heavy after you’ve carried them for more than an hour. We wandered this way, then that way, doubling back on ourselves at least twice. We stopped and asked for directions, but all we got were palms-up shrugs.
Finally, our middle son, Tommy, figured out how to buy tokens for the Italian pay phones found on every street corner in the city. I dialed the number we had for the USO and, voila, someone answered who could help us. He asked me where we were and Natalie said to tell him that we were on the forty block of Via Vespsiano. “From where you’re standing,” he said, “look across the street.”
There it was. Right there in front of us! The phone’s receiver almost fell from my hand.
“Pizza from Bologna,” said Jon. And everybody laughed.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the nice young lady at the customer counter in the USO moments later, “we’re not able to accept personal checks, and we don’t accept credit cards for anything except to pay for tours. I can’t give you any cash.”
“Where can I cash a check?” I asked. It was a Friday evening by then, so that banks were all closed and would not be open the next two days.
“All I can suggest is that you go to the American Embassy in the morning,” she said. “The teller there is closed by now. But they’re open on Saturdays for American tourists who find themselves in similar circumstances. They open at nine o’clock in the morning.”
Whew! With that bit of advice, we finally worked out a plan we hoped would work. We already had our train tickets for returning to Pisa on Sunday, so that wasn’t a problem. But we didn’t have enough cash to do much of anything in Rome beyond having a modest meal this first evening. We decided to buy tour tickets for the Vatican using plastic. Then, anticipating that we would not have to pay until checking out the day of our return, we would get a room at a nearby hotel for two nights. After this, leaving our bags at the hotel, we would walk to a nearby restaurant for our dinner. In the morning, I would get up early, hop a bus to the Embassy, cash a check there for as much as I had left in my checking account, then hurry back by taxi cab to the assembly point for the tour. If we got lucky and I should arrive there in time, I would be able to join the rest my family for the tour. If not, well, we’d only be out the price of one tour ticket.
Surprise! The next day, everything went just like we planned. The height of our Vatican tour was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The rest of the day, we wondered the streets of Rome as a family, happy to be together in the foreign place visiting archeological remnants of the ancient Roman Empire. There were so many other tourists, all dressed American style, that we didn’t feel too alien. All the restaurant wait staff and sales clerks we encountered spoke excellent English. So long as we were spending money, we were welcome every- where.
Sunday morning at the train station in Rome, we made sure this time that we knew which train to get on. We browsed the gift shop for a few minutes, killing time and picking out simple souvenirs of Rome for friends, when a little old woman dressed in near-rags approached me.
“Signore, voi gradiscono comprare le schede di preghiera?” she asked me.
“I’m sorry, what? I don’t speak Italian.”
Holding a fan of small cards out to me, cards having pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and various Catholic Saints, she said, “Le schede di preghiera… praying cards. You lik’a to buy?”
“No, no thank you. I’m not Catholic… Non sono cattolico,” I stammered.
Now, I don’t know that I didn’t say something terribly wrong. Maybe I did, trying to be polite by speaking Italian to her. Or maybe it was the way I smiled when I said it. Maybe… but no matter – soon as I said the words, a look of darkness came over the old woman as if she had just encountered old Beelzebub himself. I missed her next stream of words, but I caught her meaning clearly when she stopped screaming at me and spit full in my face. Then, before I could say or do a thing, she turned away and hurried out the door.
Tommy, standing by my side at the time, saw the whole thing happen then said, yep, “Pizza from Bologna, dad.” At that, we both laughed while I wiped my face with the back of my hand before heading to the men’s room to wash up.
Boarding il esprima a Pisa, the express train to Pisa, I shuttered a bit as the old Italian proverb, “See Rome and die,” popped into my head. The actual proverb, I’ve since learned, “See Naples (Napoli) and die,” was obviously coined many years ago when Naples was more the cultural center of Italy than it is today. The idea behind the proverb is that Rome has everything and that, after you’ve visited it, you have really lived life to the fullest; there is nothing more to experience.
Panic in the Swabian Alb ~
The ride back to Pisa was very pleasant. We had a cabin to ourselves the whole way and our seats were cushioned this time. The boys were looking forward to more time on the beach at Camp Darby, but they vowed not to give into the siren call from the Bologna pizza vendor. They promised too that they would use liberal amounts of sunscreen this time.
Setting up and striking camp one more time in the overflow campground, we set out in our van on the return leg through the mountains of Italy and Austria. On our way we stopped at the famous city of Bologna to determine if the pizza from there is really as bad as that sold on the beach at Camp Darby. It wasn’t. Actually, it was quite good. But we all agreed that pizza from the good ole American franchise of Pizza Hut tops anything we had experienced anywhere in Italy. German pizza, we all thought was actually better than Italian pizza. Strange… don’t you think?
Our last stop in Italy was at the same American Army-Air Force Exchange station where we had purchased a new tire and jack our second day in Italy. I wanted to have both fuel tanks of my van filled, the main and the auxiliary, with the best-priced gas that would be available to us on the way back. We would fill-up again on the casern in Göepingen, Germany where we planned to spend an evening with the Sawyers before continuing on to Giessen. We had American-style cheese burgers ‘n fries at the snack bar there, then hit the road again.
Marveling at the grandeur of the Italian Alps, we watched the sun shine out from behind snowcapped peaks. Even in late August, the rooftop of Europe remains white.
In Austria then, as the sun’s light was almost gone for the day, we chose not to stop in the famous city of Innsbruck for dinner as previously planned. We made only a quick “pit stop,” then pressed-on eating Gummi Bears and potato chips chased down with Cokes for our dinner. Once or twice afterward, we stopped by the side of the road for the boys to empty their bladders, but Natalie and I toughed it out, waiting until after crossing the German border and reaching Munich. There Natalie and I debated about going-on farther that night or finding a campground. If we continued, so went Natalie’s argument, we wouldn’t get to Göepingen until after midnight anyway, and it would be an imposition to wake the Sawyers so late. But I got to thinking about my empty checking account, so I argued in favor of continuing and won. The boys said that they were okay with going on; they had plenty of room to lie down and sleep in the back of the van, which had a thick, almost mattress-like, carpeted floor.
“Well, okay,” said Natalie. “I’m okay if you’re okay. Want me to drive for awhile?”
Memory of the blown tire that Natalie had the last time she drove the van at high speed flashed to mind, along with the Italian proverb, “See Rome and die.”
“Naw… I’m okay. I’ll just get a cup of coffee before we leave. Want some yourself?”
“No,” she said. “I’ll curl-up with the boys and rest for a little while so I can be fresh to take over later if you need me to. You be careful driving.”
About halfway between Munich and Göepingen, we passed by the city of Ulm, which is on the banks of the famous Danube River. This city, I have since learned, was the birthplace of Albert Einstein. It was here that Natalie woke up and rejoined me in the front passenger captain’s chair.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Ulm,” I said, as we both craned our necks trying to see the top of the city’s cathedral spire, the tallest in the world at 531 feet. We couldn’t see it for the overcast that night, despite the cathedral’s bright illumination. Fog had begun rolling-in earlier, as it often does in this part of Europe, and it was getting quite thick.
“You okay,” Natalie asked.
“Yeah… I’m fine”
A few kilometers past Ulm, we found ourselves in the midst of the Swabian Alb, vast rolling hills and forest lands of Bavaria. Only an hour, maybe less to go, I thought. It was at this time that the thought crossed my mind about gasoline; the van’s gas gauge was nearly on empty. So, I reached under the dashboard and flipped the switch to open the auxiliary tank’s valve and close off the main. The van’s engine, almost immediately, sputtered and stopped – vapor lock! I shifted the van into neutral, allowing it to coast as far as it would go, down one hill and up the next. But we ran out of momentum just before topping the next hill. Fortunately, I was able to get the van over to the side, but not quite far enough. There wasn’t much room there on the shoulder of the autobahn and the terrain slopped off steeply. Immediately, I started trying to start the van’s engine again. Over and over I tried. No luck. We would have to wait for the vapor lock to clear itself.
“Well, we’re going to be here for a few minutes,” I announced. “Anybody need to relieve themselves? If so, stay close to the van.” Just at that moment, a huge truck traveling flat out through the fog rushed past us, its wake rocking the van back and forth. I realized that our dark colored van would be almost impossible to see and that I had turned off the lights after my restarting attempts. I quickly turned on the van’s emergency flasher lights and got out to setup a reflector triangle and some flares. These are required by international driving laws in Europe to be carried at all times for situations like this.
“Damn!” I started to panic.
“What’s wrong?” asked Natalie.
“The emergency triangle and flares…” I answered from the backend of the van just as two fast moving cars passed us, one right on the tail of the other. “They must not have been put back in at the garage in Italy when we had the spare fixed and the jack replaced. I didn’t check for them and hadn’t noticed them gone since.”
Leaving the emergency flasher lights on, I tried starting the van a few minutes later. Nothing. Rarr, rarr, rarr… rarr….. rarr – Dead! Now I was in panic because I realized that we were in real danger here.
The emergency lights continued flashing, but getting weaker and weaker minute by minute. There was nothing for me to do but to start walking, leaving my family behind while making it to a phone to call for help. Along the autobahns in Germany, there are emergency pole phones every ten kilometers, or there were before cell phones became generally available everywhere. I left it up to Natalie whether to stay in the van when the emergency flashers would finally die completely or to stand outside in the dark well away from the van and the traffic. She, I knew, had a good grasp on the situation and would make up her own mind about this regardless of what I said.
Another truck zoomed by. Amazing, I thought, how these German drivers continue to speed come rain, fog or snow.
Before I started walking, Timmy called out to me, “Hey, dad – Pizza from Bologna!”
“Yeh, Timmy, that’s right, I answered. “Pizza from Bologna.”
Out of Danger ~
The emergency phone was a full five kilometers away wouldn’t you know (just my luck to stop halfway between the posts)? It only connected to the nearest polizei station. By the time I got back to the van after making the call for help, a German police car and two policemen were already there. I asked them for a battery jump, but they refused saying that it was too dangerous. Instead, they insisted that my oldest son and I help them push the van farther away from traffic. They said that they would send a wrecker in the morning, and then one of them said, “Gute nacht.” I breathed a sigh of relief when they left, half expecting them to cite me before leaving for not having the reflector triangle and flares. Although the van was now sitting at a precarious angle, I knew that my family was now out of danger and that they would be dry and warm until I got back.
Not wanting to wait there for a wrecker to finally come, which would have cost me an arm and a leg on the German economy, I decided to walk to the nearest phone with which I could call a friend from Göeppingen to come give me a battery boost. In a real pinch, it’s always nice to have friends. By noon we arrived in Göeppingen, safe and sound. There, with our friends the Sawyers, we rested and recovered from our harrowing experiences for a day before continuing on to Giessen.
So, what’s the moral to this story? Well… I can think of several that have already been thought of, things like the ever-popular saying among pilots encouraging each other to, “Plan a good flight and fly a good plan.” Another good moral would be the proverb that my grandmother often used to quote, “A stitch in time saves nine.” I certainly could have done a better job of planning, a better job of anticipating problems and being prepared for them on this adventure. “What can go wrong, will go wrong,” is another good moral. But the one I think that fits the best is the one that was offered-up by a good friend and regular reader, one that is attributed to the nineteenth Century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.”
As a result of our family’s resolve to work together through the challenges posed by this ill-fated trip, we grew in faith and respect for one another. We also learned that life will constantly present us with options for opportunity if we make ourselves available for them. But when we “step up to the bat” and take swings at the opportunities pitched our way, we should always be ready for some Pizza from Bologna.
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