Was my new companion, Rudi, working out O.K.?
I would say, yes. So far.
I’m not one for being an assistant to anyone. I find it uneasy to follow. But, you can’t know everything, so you have to depend on others to help you get to where you’re going. I mean, following is O.K. when someone is showing you directions on how to body surf or row a canoe. But if I already know how to row a canoe, I want to be the one to decide where the canoe is going to go.
In our case, it was apparent to me that I better pay attention to Rudi when he was talking about the inner workings of the Vespa or how to roll a sleeping bag to best protect it from the rain. I could see I’d have to take a backseat when it came to matters of day-to-day decisions on how to keep our vehicle –tires, lights, carburetor, in working order.
On the other hand, Rudi could see he would have to temper his Prussian eagerness if my ideas about this journey we were making would help him towards his goal of making a name for himself.
All in all, I still found myself smiling, even chuckling and ready to push forward. In Belgium, we wound through rolling hills and farm country. For lunch, we stopped under a large oak tree and brought out Frau Reseller’s ham and cheese sandwiches and fruit.
Mighty tasty, “ I said, leaning back against the thick trunk and watching some clouds roll in from the west. Looks like we .re going to lose our sunny day,” I said to Rudi.
“Hey, Rudi, “ I said. “What do your parents think about you traveling around the world”?
He settled back against one side of the tree. “They didn’t have much to say about it when I left except that my mother couldn’t understand why I would leave my good paying job in the coalmines.
“I’ve always done just about whatever I wanted to do with my life. That’s how I was raised; so they’re to blame if what I’m doing now is wrong.”
“My father didn’t
object too much, it was really my mother. She’s the boss in the
family. Whatever she says goes. My father doesn’t have much to say.
She started making a lot of noise when she saw I was really serious about
leaving. She made some threats she’s never going to let me in the
house again if I ever tried to come back. “
“And how ‘bout
“We hit it off
O.K.” I hear from him about once a month. He writes to me at General
Delivery in the bigger cities I expect to be in. I always tell him what
sites are up ahead on my route. He lets the folks know. He let’s
me know what’s happening around Wusterheide.
It was clear Rudi
wasn’t out to see the world on a bet. This might have compelled
him to begin, but once he had begun, he had seen there were places in
the world to set down stakes in than Wusterheide. Only a miracle could
allow him to return there now. As the trip progress we spoke less of Wusterheide
and even less of his parents.
His hairline was beginning to recede and this together with the wrinkles under his pale blue eyes made him look older than his 24 years. But who knows? Maybe he was older or maybe his work in the coalmines had taken its toll. And he really was only 24.
He was a showman. Rudi was like the announcer guy in a vaudeville show that comes to town once a year. In our case in Ocean City when the winter population had dwindled down to 250 people we always looked forward to something similar when the minstrel show would come to town, usually in February, and it was put on in the school gymnasium.
The routine was the
impresario asked for local volunteers to be a part of the show and people
you never suspected would volunteer and go to the ‘try outs’.
You were always surprised that some of the most quiet people in our county,
would volunteer and do such a good job dancing and singing but you never
were quite sure who was who on stage because in a minstrel all the performers
had black cream smeared all over their face except a big circle around
the eyes where the white could shine through. The impresario had a man
who was the interlocutor, as they called him, and all the jokes and skits
bounced off him.
Rudi was the
kind of guy that could’ve been a good interlocutor. But
he couldn’t have been the impresario; he had no interest in organizing
an event. That’s where we made a good team. He the interlocutor
and me the impresario.
“Could you get any help?”
“Not for a while. The plane came back one more time and strafed us one more time just to make sure we weren’t carrying explosives. If we were, the whole van probably would’ve blown up. I know that had happened to a military truck along the same road a week before.”
“But when he left, could you get help?”
“I was too little to know what to do. Finally a vegetable truck came along and then a police vehicle and the police took us back to Wusterheide.
“And your nose, was it bleeding all this time?
“I don’t remember except the scolding I got from my mother when I got home. My father took me to a clinic in the village. At that time there weren’t any doctors. That was back in ’44 and the town doctor, Doctor Heinrich had been sent to the Russian front. Most of the nurses were sent to work in military hospitals in the area. The one nurse that remained gave my nose an injection, bandaged it up and told me to come back in a month. I never did go back. I took the bandage off myself later on, so what you see is what I saw..“
“Did Dr. Heinrich
ever come back to Wusterheide?” I asked.
must be really bitter against the Americans,” I said, apologetically.
Later in the afternoon,
we drove into a quiet and gray Belgian town. The sign said ‘Westerloo.’
Inside, a half-dozen middle-aged men in work clothes were seated on a long wooden bench that lined the tavern wall. There were no other customers in the place. The men looked as though they were all brothers, waiting for a train. Above them, the unpainted wall was decorated with patterns of plaster, out-dated calendars and beer advertisements with busty woman.
Rudi and I walked
past them back to a table at the far end of the tavern. As we looked for
the waitress we noticed that the bench of men were staring at us. Fourteen
eyeballs were focused on us and staring back at them didn’t seem
to help; they continued to examine us.
Rudi was staring down,
twirling around an ashtray that was in front of him on the table.
The waitress brought
us our beer and with snapshot smiles we toasted the men, “Prosit!
This caused a slight
muddle among the men. They whispered among themselves occasionally glancing
over at us. Had Rudi’s question caused such concern? One self-elected
representative in a tattered dark suit emerged from the communal whispering
and spoke. “When I was in Germany, I had to sleep in a ditch.”
We mustered up some stage smiles and sang the merriest song we could think of, but it just might as well have been a church hymn. They didn’t change their solemn expressions. One of them got up and went outside. We finished the song. Rudi gulped down his beer and looked at me, “Aren’t you finished that beer yet, Engh?”
I laid a coin on the
table. We got up and left. On our way out, one of them put his foot out
and tripped Rudi as he passed. He fell to the floor spread eagle and stared
back at the bench of men as if to smile and say, “That was clever,
very clever.” Luckily, his guitar was not damaged.
We traveled to the end of the village. It was starting to rain. We were passing what looked like farmhouses and barns on the outskirts of the village but there were no farm fields to be seen. Only more dwellings and a crumbling 15 ft. wall covered in vines behind them that surrounded this end of the village.
I learned later these were typical of the farm houses built centuries ago, within the confines of the town for protection against warring neighboring towns. In the daytime, much like the farmers of our early West, who lived within the walls of the military stockade for protection against the Indians, the towns people traveled out each day to work in their fields and let their cattle graze.
We didn’t expect
much when we knocked on the gate of one of the farmhouses. A little girl,
about 8yrs. or 9 answered.
He spoke surprisingly
good English. “Come in out of the rain. Of course I’ve
got room for you in the barn,” answered Monsieur Vangansbert, with
a handshake and he opened the large, thick metal gate and asked us to
drive the motor scooter in. He pointed out in the barn where we could
change to dry clothes and bed down for the night.
you learn your English? I asked.
He and his daughter had heard of Disneyland in California and Mr. Vangansbert said he and his daughter were planning to visit there on her tenth birthday. I assumed he was ‘a man of means’, but I didn’t ask.
Are you going to visit
the battlefields, of World War I? “ He inquired. He used the atlas
to show us where heavy fighting, actually for years in the same spot,
went on during the first World War.
I had heard my father talking about that war. He had a cousin whose family had moved out to Iowa and had joined the American Expeditionary Forces to fight with the British in Belgium. He was killed in France in 1918 just before the war ended.
“Not many people are still living from that era, “ Mr. Vangansbert said. My grandfather was killed in Flanders in 1915. He reached to bring a framed document down from the wall. It was copy of a poem written by a volunteer soldier from Canada and he read it to me.
IN FLANDERS FIELDS
In the morning the sunbeams greeted us through the barn window. Rudi and I were off to Brussels. We were itching to get to Paris and explained that Flanders would not be on our itinerary and he understood. After some cheese and bread with Mr. Vangansbert and his daughter, we headed to the big city of Brussels.
It was the first real
traffic we had seen so far and the first time my French language came
I answered him. "
Vive La France!
WANT TO READ PREVIOUS CHAPTERS?
down the sidebar on the right to “Stories”.