Herb and Landis Harfst On The Loose In Germany (by the Skin of their Teeth!)!

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Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Photo courtesy of Herb Harfst.
Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Photo courtesy of Herb Harfst.

The adventure started on September 3, 2013, with an automobile trip from Richmond, VA, to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, an uneventful three and a half hour drive. Since we had never flown Space-A from BWI, we parked in the short term lot and found the AMC gate and confirmed that we had correct information. There were 99 seats available on a flight to Ramstein AB, Germany, roll call at 2030 hrs. Before roll call, the seat count went to 100.

We then retrieved our car and drove to the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard, a 25–30 minute drive away. We had been told by other Space-A travelers that it is possible to park free at the Yard. This is a fact. The lot is just outside the gate to the Yard. You can park there for two weeks with no action necessary on your part. For longer stays you must go through the gate to the base police station immediately to your right. There, you will need your driver’s license, automobile registration and proof of insurance. All this data is entered into their computer system and you can park indefinitely. They just ask that when you pick up your car that you notify the police that you have gone.

The Coast Guard people will give you the name of a cab company that will come and get you and take you to BWI for $30, including tip. Email us if you need the number sooner. Our taxi driver deposited us back at BWI at around 1630 and we found seats and began to wait. We were among the first potential travelers to arrive, but the longer we sat, the more crowed things became.

Ninety-nine seats began to seem less and less sufficient. Early in the process names began appearing on a large monitor screen by sign-up date within a category. The list grew longer and longer and our hopes began to waver along with those of other Category VI people. Roll call started at 1835 and was over just before 1900 and we didn’t make it. There were two couples ahead of us when all the seats had been filled. Herb was ready to go home but the Air Force sergeant in charge had told Landis not to leave because there would be another roll call at 2200 so we stayed.

At 2200 the roll call started and all six of the remaining people were called! We were going to Germany! The person checking us in put a big, red “O.B.” on our luggage tags and our boarding passes. Herb asked what O.B. meant and was told “Over Booked.” Herb wished he hadn’t asked. Had any of the Category I people showed up we could have been bumped. We didn’t start breathing easily until the wheels were off the ground.

The aircraft was a Boeing 747 belonging to Omni Air International. Anybody ever heard of them? Anyway, it was an uneventful flight and we arrived in Ramstein around 1230 local time. By the time we had reclaimed our luggage and gone through customs it was after 1400. We headed across the street to the Ramstein Inn. We had not made reservations so Landis headed straight to the central reservations office and made us a reservation.

When we went to check in, we found out that the reserved room was not in the inn but at a remote location more than a mile from the Inn. We had no car yet and there is no shuttle service between the lodgings and the inn (except to take you there and bring you back when your flight leaves) and there is no place to eat near the lodgings. We were told by central reservations people that as retirees we could not use any of the facilities in the Inn or in the connected mall. That was bum dope. We canceled the reservation and went to plan B.

We had been given the name and number of a local car rental agency that caters to Americans, has excellent service and competitive prices. It was then that we discovered that the cell phone service in the terminal is abysmal. While trying to reach the car rental agency, Landis was connected with a woman who spoke no English, who was the desk clerk at a hotel on the North Sea, close to Amsterdam. She knew nothing about renting cars and did not know where Ramstein was. Clearly, plan B was not working either.

Plan C: we have a smart phone and decided to try emailing the rental agency. There is no Wi-Fi in the Inn, at least not in the lobby. At this point we began to feel like poor old Charlie, riding on the MTA. Luckily, one of our fellow Space-A travelers, to whom we had given the name and number of the car rental agency, spotted an advertisement for the agency in one of those free tourist magazines. The ad stated that the company had an office in the Mall! Herb asked the desk clerk where it was and walked up to the office. He must have seemed like a wild man to the young lady behind the desk, but she helped him anyway by calling their off-base office and letting him talk to the rental agent. (The office in the mall could not rent us a car; it had to be done by their off-base office.) Not only did they have a car for us, there is a hotel connected with the rental agency and we had a room for the night. The rental agent said she would pick us up in 10 minutes. Actually, it was a little less than ten minutes.

We cannot say enough good things about the AMCR (American Military Community Ramstein) car rental company and the associated Hotel AMCR. Everyone we dealt with was knowledgeable, pleasant and courteous. Their cars are clean and in good repair. They don’t charge extra for automatic shift and there is a GPS in (or available for) every car. Their hotel rooms are spacious, comfortable, clean and quiet and, with the included breakfast, are price competitive with TML on the Air Base. Additionally, there is free Wi-Fi and cell phone service. Email us if you are interested in the details.

So, we had a car, we had a bed and we had a monster appetite and Herb needed tranquilizing. We asked at the desk and were told about the restaurant next door, Zur Dicken Emma, “Fat Emma’s.” We were also given discount coupons and a warning that the portions were huge. We walked next door and took a seat in their outdoor bier garten. A very pleasant (and pleasant to look at) young lady brought us bier … a liter of duenkel for Herb and a large Alkohol Frei for Landis. It was then about 1630 and we didn’t want to order a meal because we intended to come back later for dinner.

We ordered a half portion salad with grilled chicken to share between us. Three starving lumberjacks could not have eaten the salad that was delivered. Landis started at one end, Herb at the other and when both were sated there was more salad left than what we had eaten! Staggering back to our hotel room we did our best to stay awake for dinner but the bier and salad took their toll and we were both in bed by 1930 and didn’t wake up till the next morning.

After a good night’s sleep and a shower we were ready to scout out some breakfast. We didn’t have far to go. Just off the lobby at the AMCR Hotel is the breakfast room. Breakfast for the less adventurous was scrambled eggs, sausage and fried potatoes. For the rest of us there were several different kinds of bread, a selection of meats and cheeses, cereals, milk, juices, coffee, tea and hot chocolate. If you leave the room hungry it is your own fault! After breakfast we packed up, checked out, picked up our little Hyundai (rhymes with Sunday) and took off for our first destination.

One of our reasons for this trip was to pay a visit to an old friend of ours who now lives in the small town of Mengeringhausen, a dependency of the city of Bad Arolsen in the state of Hesse in central Germany. The drive from Ramstein was an easy one, mostly on secondary roads through the beautiful German countryside.

One of the most remarkable things we noticed on this leg of our trip was Germany’s commitment to alternative energy. Huge windmills dot the countryside by the hundreds. In many places there were solar energy farms with acres and acres of solar panels. It is very interesting to drive through the small towns and see houses and barns four and five hundred years old with their roofs covered with solar panels! We had seen all these things before but there seemed to be many more this trip than before.

enjoying German fare. Photo by Herb Harfst.
Enjoying German fare. Photo by Herb Harfst.

We arrived at Ingeborg’s house about 1300 and unloaded our gear and then it was time for lunch. Ingeborg has friends who have immigrated to Germany from Bulgaria and have opened a small restaurant. We all piled in the car and went to the restaurant and had lunch. In Germany, like in most European countries, the big meal of the day is the midday meal. We had no objections to that!

Herb collects German bier steins and so after lunch we made a tour of the second-hand shops in Mengeringhausen and a neighboring town of Twiste. The stein collection got larger in both places. At the shop in Twiste, Landis snagged a set of four seasons plates by Villeroy and Boch for a ridiculously low price. Packing for home was going to be interesting!

The next few days were spent enjoying the slow pace of life in a small town in Germany. We usually stay away from big cities and their hustle and bustle and try to meet the “real” people and eat the “real” food in whatever country we are in.

Our last day with Ingeborg was spent making a trip to the city of Eisenach and its castle, the Wartburg. We were driven there by Ingeborg’s niece, Simone, who is a high ranking officer in the state police. Eisenach is a city closely associated with Martin Luther—he called it his beloved city—and the Wartburg is the castle where he was “held captive” after he was declared to be an outlaw by the Emperor. While at the Wartburg, Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German. In the process, he standardized German spelling and grammar and in so doing became “the father of the high German language.” Herb is a Lutheran Lay Minister so the castle and city held a special meaning for him.

The castle, like most castles in Germany, is perched on top of a very high, very steep-sided hill in order to be defensible. We elected to walk up. We don’t regret that decision, but it was a very physically trying experience. Herb was clutching his nitroglycerin the whole way. It was well worth the climb. When we got to the top the first thing we did was check on the castle tours. We were lucky. The only English language tour of the day was to begin about an hour and a half after we got there. It was lunch time and so we found the restaurant and went and had lunch.

Lunch was Flammkuchen. Flame cake. Not a cake at all but a very thin, very crisp crust (think saltine cracker) spread with crème fraiche, thinly sliced onions, either ham or bacon and emmentaler cheese. It is baked in very high heat to crisp the crust and melt the cheese. It is delicious. Herb washed it down with a half-liter of Schwartzer Esel (Black Donkey) the local dark bier served in a very pretty glass stein (krug). Landis had her NA bier. Landis and Herb then dashed off for the tour.

We were amazed at the luxury to be found in a medieval castle. The “women’s quarters” were nothing short of spectacular. Mosaic scenes depicting the life of St. Elizabeth covered the walls and ceilings. Every living space in the castle has its own fireplace, a very innovative concept in its day. One can only imagine the amount of work it must have taken to keep the fireplaces burning in winter!

In stark contrast to all this opulence was the small room where Luther lived and worked while he was there. We could spend several pages telling you about the Wartburg, but you still wouldn’t know what it was like. You need to go take the tour.

The city of Eisenach was once a part of East Germany. We were told that during the communist era paint was not easily available. There are still a few of the concrete gray buildings in evidence but they are all but hidden by the explosion of color all around them. In addition to the natural, pent up yearning for beauty, the city is preparing for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation in 1517. Everything is being scrubbed or painted or repaired for the big event. We even saw a communist-era building painted with faux faschwerk! Eisenach is a city worth visiting.

The next day more of our friends, Franz and Ruth, who live in Oldenburg drove down to Mengeringhausen and, taking leave of Ingeborg, we drove in tandem to the city of Marburg. Franz and Ruth had chosen Marburg at random, partly because they had never been there either. We were all on the same footing except for the language thing.

We drove straight to the Tourist Information Office. If you have never used the services of the German Tourist Information Service, you need to try it. Every time we have used it the offices have been staffed by young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable people and they bend over backwards to help you, and they speak English. In our case, they found a hotel, called and made reservations for us. This was no easy task as there were two conventions going on in town and it was the season for school children to take field trips. After several tries they secured reservations for us at a small hotel on the edge of town.

The Hotel Lahngarten is a small hotel located on the banks of the Lahn River. It is an old building but has been completely remodeled very recently. Outside it is very traditional looking, inside It is very modern, very sleek. The rooms are small but very clean and comfortable. The décor was very nicely done modern. The lady who owned the hotel was very accommodating. If you would like details, email us.

Having found our hotel, we checked in, unloaded, and decided to go back into town for some sight seeing “recon” and dinner. Ruth and Franz introduced us to public transportation in Germany. We rode the bus and eliminated the parking hassle. The bus stop was about a block from the hotel. The buses run on time. One-way bus fare was 1.60 Euros each, a fraction of what it would have cost us to park.

The bus left us off right at the parking garage where we would have parked had we driven in! The parking garage had 14 levels. We rode the elevator up to the top and then transferred to another elevator for a ride up to the old city. It was late in the day but we managed to do some window shopping and also scoped out the places for our next day’s activities. We had dinner at a very nice restaurant right on the main square of the old city. After dinner it was home and to bed.

The next morning we went downstairs in search of breakfast and found it in the “breakfast room.” A very good, typical German breakfast. Juices, milk, cereal, coffee, tea, hot-chocolate, soft-boiled eggs, several kinds of bread and a plethora of meats and cheeses. Again, no excuse for being hungry.

Ruth and Franz were already there when we got there and we planned our day’s foray while eating. After breakfast, we once again headed for downtown. This time Ruth worked some magic with the bus driver and we got a group ticket good for all day including our return home. This ticket cost us 6.20 Euros.

Arriving downtown, we got off the bus sooner than we had the night before in order to visit St. Elizabeth’s Lutheran Church, a huge, twin-spired church located in the lower (modern) city. It was well worth the stop. The church defies description.

Having seen the church, we walked down to the elevators and rode up to the old city. We spent the morning gawking and shopping. At one point the ladies wanted to shop in a small department store. Not up to this, the guys went across the street and got coffee. While drinking coffee, Herb happened to look at the building across the street. Up on the wall was a plaque that read: “Hier Wohnte Dr. Martin Luther, 1529” (Dr. Martin Luther lived here in 1529!) And this was not the oldest building on the block!

Shopping done we decided to have lunch. We chose a small restaurant where a lot of college age kids were eating. We decided that the number of young people probably meant that the food was good, plentiful and not expensive. You can tell that we use very scientific methods to choose our restaurants. We went in and ate and discovered that we had guessed right on all three criteria. In addition to the good food and pleasant atmosphere, the people watching was great.

The unique architecture within the German castle. Photo by Herb Harfst.
The unique architecture within the German castle. Photo by Herb Harfst.

The agenda after lunch was a walk up to the castle that dominates the hill above the upper or older city. The castle of course is the reason for the town being built in the first place and it is probably 300 or 400 feet above upper city. Believe me when I tell you that the 300 or 400 feet translated into thousands of steps!

On the way up we visited St. Johannes Catholic church. Another very beautiful church. Laboring our way up to a point where we could see the castle through the trees just another hundred feet or so up from where we were, we came to a road block and could not go any higher. There was a lot of repair work going on on several houses on both sides of the very narrow street and the street was closed. Not willing to accept defeat, Franz spotted a construction supervisor and asked him how we could get up. The man detailed a way up for us. This involved cutting through a lot of people’s back yards and we thought we would get stopped any minute but we made it to the top. Herb put his nitroglycerine back in his pocket and we toured the castle. Once again, there are not enough adjectives to describe the castle—you just have to go and see it for yourselves.

Marburg is a university town and the university’s presence is everywhere. The castle is owned by the university and has been lovingly restored and now houses a couple of museums. The first museum is dedicated to depicting medieval life. It is very well done and the artifacts are many and varied and nicely displayed. It took us nearly two hours to see this museum and at the end we decided that we were all in a state of “sensory overload” and that we would leave the museum of religious life for our next trip. Heading out of the building we discovered another way down that was more direct than the way that we had come up.

It would not have been the way to walk up, however, because it was much steeper. But, steep doesn’t matter so much on the way down so we took it. On the way down we passed a home that had a plaque that said it had been built in the year 1050!

Once back down in the upper town we scouted out a restaurant and had dinner. After dinner we were all too tired to do much of anything else so we took the elevators down to the lower city, caught the bus and went home and to bed. What a wonderful day it had been!

The next morning after breakfast we checked out of the Hotel Lahngarten and sadly said goodbye to Franz and Ruth. We then drove back to Ramstein and to the AMCR hotel where we had reservations. It was too late in the day to search out a restaurant so we went back to Zur Dicke Emma for another great meal. Then it was back “home” and to bed.

The next morning we felt like we needed to go back to the Air Force Base and reinforce our knowledge for the trip home. This we did and then decided to at least check out the huge mall that is a part of the Inn. We then discovered that the Base Exchange was a part of the mall and that a couple of the stores in the mall were dependencies of the Exchange and that these places were all that were off limits to us as retirees. So being American tourists, we shopped.

Also located in the mall is the RTT office. One of our goals for this trip was the Wurstfest in the small city of Bad Duerkheim. Our research before we left home said that RTT had tours going to the fest. Unfortunately, the tours were all sold out. We were disappointed but there was nothing to be done.

At breakfast that morning at the hotel we had met another Space-A couple, Joe and Ann Gauvin from Oxford, Mississippi. We ran into them at the mall and they told us that they were going to the Wurstfest and that the young lady at RTT had given them directions for riding the train to Bad Duerkheim. Despite Herb’s rising anxiety level we went back to RTT and sure enough we were given directions and a computer printout of the train schedules that we were to use!

We had lunch at the mall and went back to the hotel, changed clothes and picked up our cameras and, throwing caution to the winds, set out to drive to the neighboring town of Landstuhl where we were to catch the train. We found the station and a free parking space nearby, bought our tickets and sat down to wait for the train. While waiting we talked to a group of kids who were taking the train home from school. Lots of fun.

We then saw our new friends, Joe and Ann, coming down the platform so we all decided that we would get lost together. Safety in numbers. The train came and we boarded, found seats and sat down for the ride to Neustadt where we were to change trains. We discovered as we were getting off in Neustadt that we had been sitting in first class. No one had checked our tickets so we sat, fat, dumb and happy, in first class.

Arriving in Neustadt we discovered that our train had been a minute late and our connecting train, with Teutonic efficiency, had already left.
As we were standing on the platform, wringing our hands in dismay, a group of young people overheard us talking and took us in hand and put us on another train to Bad Duerkheim. Our first train had had electronic displays showing the next stop but there was no such thing on the second train, only spoken announcements. Just like at home, the announcements were too softly spoken, too rapidly spoken and too familiarly spoken for even a German to understand, to say nothing of a bunch of American tourists.

As we were discussing the possibility of spending our lives on a German train trying to figure where to get off, we were again taken in hand by a German couple who were also going to the Wurstfest. Saved by the helpfulness of some German people. Having been guided to the fest, we decided to split up, Joe and Ann going their way and Herb and Landis doing their thing.

The Bad Durkheim Wurstfest. Photo by Herb Harfst.
The Bad Duerkheim Wurstfest. Photo by Herb Harfst.

The Bad Duerkheim Wurstfest is the oldest “fest” in Germany. We attended the 592nd Wurstfest! People who have never been there want to compare this fest with the Oktoberfest in Munich. Not even close. The Bad Duerkheim fest is much smaller, much less raucous and all-together more civilized. Over the years Bad Duerkheim has become the center of a very large wine producing region and the Wurstfest has become a weinfest. A good thing unless you came with a hunger for wurst.

The whole thing had the feel of a large state fair. Every winery within traveling distance has a tent where their wines are showcased. There are many, many food stands serving almost anything you can imagine in the way of German fast food. We came to the fest hungry so it was another weight-gaining experience for us. Herb describes himself as a “common sewer of cheap (make that inexpensive) wine. He was in heaven here. The wine is served in half-liter glasses! He was well into his third glass when he discovered that the Germans dilute the wine with about 1/3 of a glass of sparkling mineral water. That made the day last a little longer.

There was a huge Ferris wheel called the “Jupiter.” Being Ferris wheel freaks, we just had to ride. It was a really good experience. A very long ride with several stops at or near the top and we got a birds-eye view of the town and the surrounding vineyards. Having drank the wine, eaten the food, ridden the Jupiter, we decided to take an earlier train back home. We have to tell you, if you go to this (or any other fest) it is a whole lot more fun with more than just two people. Next time we will try to organize a crowd to go. Anyway, we made our way back to the train station and checked the schedule and discovered a train leaving in about fifteen minutes, going back the same way that we had come.

Since we now considered ourselves “veterans” we were confident of arriving home safely. But no one told us veteran travelers that in Neustadt, where we were to change trains, there are two train stations and the one at which we were not supposed to get off, came first. And, you guessed it, we got off at the wrong stop. Once again the helpful German people came to our rescue and put us on another train that took us to the correct stop.

While sitting on the platform waiting for the train to Landstuhl, who should appear but our friends, Joe and Ann. They had taken the originally planned train which didn’t stop at the wrong station and our getting lost had taken enough time that we were now able to ride home with Joe and Ann! We made it back home without further incident.

Way back at the beginning, the original reason for this trip was to be to meet our Space-A friends, Charlie and Sharon, for a few days during which we would attend the 49th annual Ramstein Welfare Bazaar. For this event two huge aircraft hangars are cleared and vendors from all over Europe come to hawk their wares. We were not prepared for the size, the variety and the quality of items offered for sale. Herb’s beer stein collection grew by one and Landis found a very nice Italian purse. Unfortunately, the opportunity to spend some time with our friends was cut short but we did get to go to the bazaar. If you ever have the chance, go. It is a once in a lifetime affair.

After the bazaar we drove back to the hotel and just “vegged out.” Dinner was again at Zur Dicke Emma’s. We guess you can tell that we liked the place! This time the only seats that were available were at the bar and just opposite the door to the kitchen and next to the bartenders’ station. Not only did we have a good dinner but we had ringside seats for all the action! We really enjoyed seeing how hard the chefs and bartenders work and the precision with which they work. By the way, have you ever seen Jaegermeister on tap? They have it at Zur Dicke Emmas!

The next morning was Sunday and after breakfast we decided to go to the Air Base to check on future flights as we were planning to begin trying for a flight on Wednesday or possibly Thursday. The weather had turned cool and rainy and we had nothing planned so we went to the terminal. We discovered that there were four KC–10s going to the States that day! Three were going to McGuire AFB and one to Dover AFB. Our car was at the Coast Guard Station near Baltimore so we decided to try for the flight to Dover and rent a car to drive to Baltimore.

There were only 5 seats available on that flight so we didn’t really get our hopes up. But we did go back to the hotel, pack and check out with the proviso that we could have our room back if we didn’t make the flight.

The car rental agency has a parking lot close to the terminal and a drop box in the terminal so we were hedging our bets. While we were waiting for roll call at 1320, we both came down with a bad case of the “go home fever” and the anxiety began to build. We were deflated when names started appearing on the monitors in the waiting area. There were bunches of people and we thought that they were all trying for “our” KC–10 but friends explained that all potential passengers for that day were listed no matter what flight they were trying for so we stayed and, we got on!

We were the only people who wanted to go to Dover. So we dropped the car keys in the box, went through security and sat down to wait in the departure area. After a few minutes an official looking woman came up to us and informed us that the flight to Dover had been diverted to McGuire and did we still want to go. Well, we had burned our bridges behind us and we decided to go to McGuire. A few minutes later we boarded our flight.

We had never flown in a KC–10 before and didn’t know what to expect and we were pleasantly surprised with what we found. Spacious seats with lots of legroom and a crew who treated us like we were their grandparents. Truth to tell, we were old enough to be the grandparents of most of them. Anyway, it was a pleasant and uneventful flight.

Our flight was the last flight of the day to arrive at McGuire and the place was deserted. There was one customs agent on duty and he got to leave when he was through with us. We walked into the empty terminal and while wondering what to do the customs agent offered to take us to the Air Force Inn. Well, we hadn’t made reservations yet so we told him no and Herb went and call and got reservations and a shuttle to pick us up. The Inn appeared to be very new. It was also very clean, very quiet and very comfortable, a situation tailor made for a couple of weary travelers. We put in a wake up call and went to bed.

The next morning we discovered that there was a small Starbucks-type café in the terminal so we went there to see about breakfast. While waiting for our food Landis heard another couple talking about renting a car to drive to BWI. Never the shy one, she went over and proposed that we jointly rent a car and drive to BWI. They were amenable so we ate and waited for the rental car shuttle. They picked us all up, we rented a car and had a pleasant and uneventful drive to BWI.

Landis and I called a cab and went to the Coast Guard yard to pick up our car. During the cab ride we heard about the massacre at the Navy Yard in Washington. When we got to the Yard we drove to the police station to tell them that we had picked up our car and the Coasties told Landis that the perpetrator was a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer. We stewed about that one all the way to Richmond where we found out that they had been pulling Landis’ leg. Score one for the Coast Guard.

At any rate our trip was over. We had accomplished all our goals for the trip, had had a very good time and had done it all within our budget, thanks to the Space-A benefit.

Herb Harfst, CPO, USN, Ret.
and Landis Shepherd
Richmond, Virginia
Herb.Harfst@gmail.com

Reprint from May–Jun 2014 • Volume 44, No. 3