Were his ambitions anything
like mine? Who cares? I needed help. I was outta my league when it came
to traveling the world. I would just as soon stay at home and have the
world come to me than have to go out to it. There must be all levels of
worldly people. This was a guy at the gut level. Not at the slick, fast
lane, material level of high rollers. I had seen enough of that shallow
level in all the schools I had gone to, in my U.S. Army job and back at
the beach in Ocean City, Maryland.
“That’s what everyone asks me,” He laughed. “Sometimes I’d say I’m out collecting folks songs. It depends on who’s asking. “When I had that camera that was stolen from me in Calcutta, I used to say I was a photographer and out to write a book. Other times I’d say I was curious and wanted to know what was happening on the other side of the hill.
I told some guys at the Altenhoffen Bar back in my hometown that I was going to build a special bike and go traveling like Hans Helfin. He’s a German guy that traveled all over the world. He was always my hero, ever since I was a kid. He wrote a couple books. Now he’s a millionaire.
“My friends at Wusterheide
asked me when I was going to set off and I told them in a year or so,
once I got the bike finished.
you’re touring the world, just on a bet?” I said.
“And you just
started out alone?”
I asked, “How ‘bout your parents? What’d they think of all this?”
“They pretty much didn’t
care. I’d been working most of the time in the coalmines down near
Duesseldorf. And I really didn’t get to be with them much. I’ve
got one brother. He’s married. He keeps my parents happy.”
“Wow!! That’s 4
hours a day on the train. Did you sleep on the train?”
“I spent the whole day
in the mines. When I came out again it was nighttime. I was so beat. I
couldn’t do any more than eat my evening meal and go to bed.
“I didn’t go further than the eighth grade in school, and in Germany you can’t get a decent job unless you’ve got the papers to show you’ve been trained in some school. When I return to Wusterheide, I’ll show them a lot of things I’ve learned. Then they’ll listen to me. When I get back, I’ll write a few books about my experiences, like Hans Hilfen, and become a millionaire like Hans Hilfen,” he smiled to himself. “What would the people of Wusterheide think of me then? “
This was helpful to me. On this trip I had been struggling with my problem of being “the outsider”. Of being the ‘intruder’ in people’s lives. With Rudi, it seemed no problem at all. I think it was a case of he saw other people much differently than I did. People could have been a series of paper dolls for all he cared. His main interest in people was he could entertain them and earn a meal. His real drive to see the world was to be able to say one day he had seen it. I could be a part of that for him. He could see there was something about me that could help him accomplish that. He knew if he stuck with me and put up with me, it would lead to his goal. And I felt the same about him.
Back in Wusterheide, he told all his friends at the Gasthaus he would be back in four years. Nine months had passed already. Even though he had his bike stolen, he wasn’t going to quit now.
It excited me to think we were teaming together. At last I would have a companion. I might not agree with his European way of looking at things, and visa versa. I saw this would be part of the learning process for each of us. The combination would make my observing things much sharper. At least that’s how I saw it.
If he were really able to get into homes as he said he had, my problem of being unable to approach people would be solved. With a companion, I would have to lose some of the freedom I was having before, but I would never experience as much loneliness.
Besides our talents in music, the only sameness I could see in Rudi was we both had a desire to become someone; he to achieve public recognition; I to achieve self-recognition. This was a strange combination of personalities to be seated on a motor scooter headed off to see the world. I wondered how we would fare.
When it came to material things like big cars and big houses and nice clothes and jewelry and things like that, Rudi was really my opposite. I didn’t much care for those things. He was traveling the world to eventually get those things that I was in the process of giving up. I wondered how I would deal with that.
Herr Van Dohlen saw us packing
the Vespa. “
The Rolleicord was the poor
sister of the Rolleiflex, the camera I lost. But it was better that no
I still had my unused rolls of film. Back in Wuerzburg, I wondered if Hans Bartsch would see the difference when he was printing my negs. Maybe I wouldn’t have to tell him how dumb I was to lose my camera. I figured I’d wait to see what Hans thought of the quality of the photos from Holland from this point on.
We headed west. The country of Belgium was our aim. The Vespa drove oddly at first with the weight of another person on the back. But I soon got used to it. It was a new pleasure to be able to chat with someone and to point out interesting things on the landscape. I soon learned Rudi was not much interested in scenery. He saw it as a backdrop. His interest was mileage and road signs. Getting somewhere new each day. He saw that as success. Like back in the coalmines, more tonnage, to him, was accomplishment.
But it didn’t bother me. We sped along the flat Dutch highway lined with tall, stately white birch trees. The neatly trimmed countryside rolled endlessly until it reached the distant earthline where Holland faded into the horizon.
It made me feel good to have Rudi coming along with me, or should I say, me with him. Our chance meeting had saved me from inquiring about passage home to Maryland on a freighter. His outright optimism gave me inspiration. I felt the strange notion that a ‘guide’ had been sent to me, a conductor one who was to deliver me from the frustration of not being able to rise above my inability to escape the depths of loneliness. But I didn’t dare show any signs of any kind of weakness that I couldn’t keep up or do my share of the job. I knew I could do it. As the afternoon wore on, I caught myself happily smiling.
Near evening, as the cooler
ocean breeze began blowing across the Netherlands from the north, Rudi
yelled over the roar of the motor, “Time to have that big meal!”
I turned into the tree-lined lane of the quaint stone farmhouse with a thick thatched roof and several outbuildings and a barn. “I hope you know what you’re doing!” I said as we put-putted up into the farmyard. I had seen pictures of these farmsteads like in a Millet painting in the encyclopedia back home but never imagined I’d be seeing them up close like this.
I didn’t know if I would’ve driven up into any farmyard yard on my own like this where I imagined the owner would come out with a shot gun like I heard stories on the Eastern Shore where I grew up where some ol’ chicken farmer that lived way back in the boondocks that didn’t trust any vehicle that came up in his driveway and he’d fire a warning shot up in the air just to establish what’s what. Those chicken farmers were still living in the 19th century just like these people were so I wasn’t sure if we were doing the right thing.
But events were going so fast, I didn’t have a chance to reconsider. We arrived We were there and a stocky Dutch farmer, probably the owner, was standing in the farmyard. He had heard us coming. He didn’t have a shotgun but he did have a pitchfork he was leaning on as he was watching us. He looked like he had just come in from working in the field. His tanned workmen’s face was aged far beyond his youthful years. Dark green eyes followed us as we parked the motor scooter, probably the first that had ever driven up into his farmyard. I saw some other eyes of two little children peeking from behind an empty hay wagon across the yard.
“Hello!” Rudi greeted
him as I turned off the motor. It startled me to see the wide grin and
smile that came out of Rudi. To this point I had not seen such an affable
smile on Rudi’s face. Not even at the songfest the night before.
His face was usually frozen into a stern expression.
As I set the scooter in the
parked position, Rudi got off the scooter
“Pleased to meet you,”
“About twenty kilometers,”
the farmer answered as I heard the screen door slam and saw his housewife
coming our way drying her hands on a dishtowel. She took the children’s’
I figured I better change the subject quickly. “You’ve got a nice charming farm here,” I looked over at the barn and the outbuildings. He smiled and diverting the conversation to me, “You look like you’re packed up to ride on a long trip.”
“Yes, we are,”
I said in the little Dutch that I knew. I didn’t want to bring Rudi
into the conversation.
Rudi interrupted quickly. “What
he means is we’d like to know if we might sleep in your barn tonight.
We have sleeping bags and neither of us smokes.
He waited a long time before
he said, “I think we have some room for you boys.” He was
looking straight at me as though I was in charge of the whole thing. “Follow
me,” and he headed towards the barn.
Now that was a switch. Me,
the captain of this whole thing. I was pushed in charge. In the barn,
with his pitchfork he pulled down a bunch of hay from the loft above and
rearranged it in a corner.
No doubt, during the war, he
had done the same for English soldiers separated for their units or German
soldiers escaping advancing American battalions.
“You did good, Engh” Rudi said and began opening his sleeping bag and laying it out in the deep straw. “Now we want to practice some songs,” he said, starting to tune his guitar.
Later, I was to see, there
was a reason for this.
The sun was going down,
getting darker and it was getting cooler. Mr. Renseller said,
“Let’s not have this concert out in this barn, fellows. Let’s
all go in the house.”
“Sitzen Sie sich!” Frau Renseller ordered us to sit down with them for the evening meal at their generations-old long thick wooden table. She waved her kettle spoon directing Rudi to sit on the left side and me on the right side of Herr Renseller who sat at the head of the table as little Damian and Sabrina and their grandmother, Frau Anneliese and Stefan, the hired hand, took their regular places.
Rudi and I went for second helpings of the steaming stew of chunks of ham and vegetables laced with local condiments that added a flavor I didn’t recognized. The children looked healthy so I didn’t question what I was eating. Rudi ate anything I soon learned.
Near the end of the meal when Frau Renseller was passing around the generous slices of cheese, I saw Herr Renseller whispering to Stefan. It later turned out he was dispatched to invite the neighbor farm families to come listen to the two troubadours that arrived late afternoon, one an American and one German who were staying overnight at the Renseller farm. One of the farmers’ daughters had been an exchange student last year in the USA and spoke excellent English and translated when we got stuck in the conversations. Herr Renseller passed around a jug of wine and a neighbor brought some of their own product.
Most of the conversations centered on big American cars and the wonder of TV, and of course, we played some Elvis Presley tunes. It was nearing midnight and Herr Renseller said in Dutch, “"Een uur slaap voor middernacht is de moeite waard twee uur na." I asked Frieda, the exchange student, what it meant. She said,” It’s an old Dutch proverb. It means, “One hour’s sleep before midnight is worth two hours after.”
The language difference didn’t turn out to be the big problem I thought it might be on this trip. Usually we could figure things out between us, or by drawing sketches, or acting charade movements or finding a dictionary in the household. Sometimes the grade school children in family knew enough English for me to translate it to Rudi or visa versa.
Bedtime came along, and Frau
Renseller came over to us and said, “How would you boys like to
sleep in a feather bed tonight?” We gave the answer with a big smile.
Rudi stood up swiftly and celebrated this reward to us by booming out
in song his favorite rendition of “In Muenchen Steht Das Hof Brau
Haus.” And the room joined in singing the familiar toast. .
I heard a knock on our door
and awoke to see our room flooded with sunlight. “Time for breakfast!”
“Did you boys hear the roosters crowing outside this morning? Herr Renseller asked as we sat down beside him to a breakfast of eggs, rye bread, fried potatoes, bacon and fresh warm milk.
“Where you going today?”
Frau Renseller asked as she filled our milk glasses again.
“Wish we did,” he answered. “But our fields are small here. Not big like in your country. Machines wouldn’t pay for themselves. Holland’s a small country and we’ve got no room to expand. If I had two sons the problem would be even greater. I would divide the land between the two of them. My neighbor is thinking of getting out of farming. We might be able to work something out if I could buy his land.
We returned to the
house and began preparing our scooter for the road. Frau Reseller
came out from the house with a large sack. “Here boys, I’ve
packed a lunch for you. “
I nodded but I couldn’t
help feeling it was a small thing to say. Rudi didn’t have anything
more to do with the German occupation of her country than I had to do
with the liberation of it. In Belgium, we were to feel the resentment
against the Germans even stronger.
Oh, well, maybe we would get lucky and pick the right farm for sleeping tonight. The Renseller family all turned out to wish us farewell. Frau Reseller, dishtowel still in hand and children at her waist side said, “ Elk afscheid is de geboorte van een herinnering."
Rudi with his platt deutsch and Herr Renseller with his knowledge of German and me with my English figured out it meant the old Dutch proverb, “Every goodbye is the birth of a memory.”
We bid our farewell memories
to the Rensellers and were off once again on the Dutch highway headed
west. At the Belgian border the Customs people wanted to charge us for
bringing two guitars into their country but we sang them a couple of songs
and melted them away, and then crossed over into their country.
Also, at a stop for gasoline I saw a Belgian guy putting up a poster for a circus that was coming to town and I got an idea. I never suspected my training at college at Maryland Institute of Design in Baltimore would come in handy on this trip. I was enrolled in a minor course called “Advertising Design” and loved it. How did we use it in Brussels, the first major city we hit?
I realized that when you’re in a situation that you’re not familiar with and people aren’t familiar with you, the best way to announce yourself and explain what you’re doing in town in our case is not to put up posters but to announce it in a newspaper. Journalists are always looking for story ideas and we were a natural for them. European newspapers in post-war Europe were healthy again. I could tell by their variety and abundance at the newsstands. This would be a situation where everybody would win.
I borrowed a trick from these circus and carnival advance guys who go into a town ahead of time and put up flyers and posters about the event. We didn’t have a circus or anything like that but we did have, what they call in the publicity business, a “hook.”
Our unique hook was that we were on a world tour –and the reader’s interest would be that we were both an American and German together. To the public, that represented a positive aspect. Sort of a “Good Will” thing. Plus all newspapers of any size would publish a picture of our motor scooter and us. People would begin talking about us and we would get invited not only into farms but city homes as well.
Well, before I tell you about how I enticed Rudi to come with me into a major city newspaper office and ask for the production head of the news department, I’ll tell you of our rude welcome to Belgium and how we nearly lost it all to some ruffians.
ON TO PARIS
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