The Captains’ Club was at its apex for several weeks after the thrilling Sylvester exploits of four of its members. Conversation turned dark in early February when several Captains noted an article in the Stars and Stripes newspaper that stated in no uncertain terms that there had been no “stop loss” for Operation Joint Endeavor. That meant that the active-duty Soldiers came and left their assignments as normal. We saw many left behind from the team in Hungary and Bosnia because they were pending transfer. The stir among the Reserve Component Captains was whether that “stop loss” applied to our mobilization as well. More than one of the unit members had tendered a resignation to the unit commander prior to the mobilization. Except for a Major previously written about, none of the resignations were acted upon. One of our Captains’ Club members, Glen Thomas, was among them.
Remember, this all occurred well before the mass mobilizations of the Reserves after the terrorist attacks in 9/11/2001. I can personally attest to the fact that in 1995-1996, the Army hadn’t worked out many mobilization details, as I never received the proper DD Form 214 that is required for any mobilized Soldier. Anyway, there was a lot of consternation stirring about what people felt as an improper mobilization at best or at least separate treatment. More importantly, members of the unit started becoming convinced that out leadership had blatantly lied to us about the requirement that we be mobilized. I didn’t know immediately that these complaints were coming not just from the Captains, but from Enlisted ranks as well.
Soon I started hearing complaints on an almost daily basis. Since I was a lawyer in the civilian world, I started getting Enlisted Soldiers and Officers asking questions about their rights and options for relief. At one point, there was a line outside of my barrack’s door! Since I admittedly knew nothing, I referred them to the post Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office. I also suggested that if they felt they had an issue with the command that they always had the right to seek assistance from the Inspector General. At the same time, I felt an obligation to let unit leadership know of the rumors running rampant through the unit. Our Company Commander suggested I contact the Deputy and Commander. I made the necessary appointments and did so. At first they seemed concerned, but when I asked several follow-up questions, I got stammering and clear direction to stay out of it and to continue referring anyone who comes to me to the JAG office.
There is another Army adage that might be applicable here. Much like they saying of making sure Soldiers have work to do (no matter how menial) is the quote, “If Soldiers aren’t bitching, they aren’t happy.” One thing I’ve noted is that there is a fine line between evil or destructive bitching and sarcastic or even dark-humored bitching. The latter are actually healthy outlets to daily frustrations, but the evil bitching is problematic1. Besides the seriousness of the complaints surrounding the truthfulness of our unit leaders, we had some great laughs about many other scenarios and situations we had to deal with. One such story, though, may have meandered perhaps a bit too close to the line of seriousness. It involved a fellow Captain who seemed to take too much of a liking to the beer. We joked about him being continually drunk. His conversation often turned dark. One night after he had way too many, this Captain suggested that no one would notice if he painted the large historical cannon pink and hung himself on it.
I know that many of us took him seriously – and started keeping a more watchful eye upon him. That did not stop us, though, from nicknaming him “The Reaper,” or even “Reap” (short for the grim reaper) due to his dark thoughts. Similarly, an ongoing joke revolved around who was buying the pink paint and what night were we going to paint the Howitzer! Fortunately, it was Winter in Wiesbaden, so any painting escapade would have to wait. Instead, we found another interesting way to blow off some steam.
One of the unit’s Lieutenants was going stir crazy on our small post. He found and bought himself a beater of a car. In the parlance of the military overseas, these are called hoopties. The only requirement for a hooptie is that it run and can pass a fairly onerous German inspection. I think he got this one for under $500. Since his was the only car owned by anyone in the unit, LT Tom Audette became an honorary member of the Captains’ Club. Some of the senior members of the club received preference, so I was a regular rider (and oftentimes driver) of Tom’s beaten-down Volvo hooptie. We enjoyed evening visits to a local restaurants and various day trips to Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Mainz, and even as far off as Heidelberg. The weekend of February 17-18, 1996, though, was different. Due to President’s Day holiday, we had Monday off, so we wanted to venture a little further away.
I remember the precise weekend because it was also Fasching weekend. The real “holiday” is Shrove Tuesday (Tuesday, February 20th), but the Germans celebrate what we call Mardi Gras in a big way. We didn’t know it, though, at the time. It seems that Fasching is much more popular in the North than it was in Bavaria, where I had previously lived. It was serious business in Wiesbaden, Mainz, Koln and Dusseldorf, among other Germany cities. Anyway, little did we know we were setting out for trouble!
For whatever reason, we decided to head toward Dusseldorf. I think someone had heard it was a fun town. I drove (about a 2 1/2 hour trip) as Tom decided to get started drinking one of the beer racks we bought along. Once we arrived at Düsseldorf, we searched for a hotel. We wanted a flophouse near the train station (Bahnhof) like our smaller group had during the New Year’s Eve trip to Nurnberg: cheap and dirty! It really didn’t matter as we didn’t expect to spend much time there. We found that Düsseldorf didn’t have any cheap hotels — or at least we couldn’t find any with rooms available. We finally found an old place that wasn’t too from the bahnhof. It wasn’t cheap, but it had sufficient rooms for us.
Almost immediately we set out on foot to find the hot spots of Düsseldorf. Before too long we came upon an area with tents and stands lined up for blocks. Unfortunately, almost every one was closed. We headed to one of the few open stands and got an Alt beer. We found out then that Alt beer was about all you could get in Düsseldorf. Afterwards, we wandered along the vacant street for a little while. Tom got pretty bummed. He was a young guy, single, and was looking for more action. The rest of us were just happy to be away from the post and enjoyed seeing the sights of the city.
We found another small stand serving Alt beer and stopped for another. Before long, we noticed a lot more people around. None stopped for a drink as they seemed to be heading somewhere. Most of them were dressed in fasching costumes — funny hats, painted faces, etc. We figured that the big parade and party in Düsseldorf would be on Sunday and that there were only private parties on Saturday. Pretty soon, the place we were at started to close down. We figured that we would try to follow along behind some locals to see if there was anything else open.
Soon we strolled down what appeared to be a shopping district. For about 7-8 p.m., there seemed to be quite a few people about. We saw a few interesting characters along the way. Some were dressed in costumes and some appeared to be just out for a walk. One old guy was drunk as a skunk. He followed each girl that went by and slapped her in the ass with a book he was carrying. Not good in #MeToo era, but we found it was pretty hilarious at the time! Before long, we began to hear music. We followed the music and came to a square that was jammed with people. We had found the party! We were ecstatic.
The mob of people lasted several blocks. There were at least two bands. Food, beer, and gluhwein stands were open all over the place. There were stands selling all kinds of other things, most notably, fasching hats. They look like jester hats and come in various shapes and sizes. Of course, we all just had to get one. They looked great and we began to really fit in with the crowd. From there we continued down the block until we came to what appeared to be the end and headed back the other way. As we got closer to the band, we could hardly even move. People were packed so tight that traffic was at a standstill. Groups would grab on to each other’s shoulders and sort of bunny-hop through the crowd. They kind of just bullied their way through. We quickly figured this out and hopped on behind one such group. It was really a lot of fun! As long as you held on to the person in front of you, everyone else sort of bounced right off.
Once we got through the crowd we found a little stand-up table near a beer and wurst stand. We grabbed the table and used that as a home base for the next few hours. Everyone drank lots of Alt as we munched on bratwurst and other German delicacies. We started up many conversations with people around us and had a really good time. The funny thing was that nearly everyone there was getting drunk. Funnier still was that all the beer stands were serving Alt in nice (albeit small) beer glasses. Before long the sidewalks were littered with broken glass and broken bottles of champagne and schnapps. Of course, as beer consumption continued, so did the need to urinate. It was going on behind cars and trucks, in alleys, and along storefronts, by both men and women! By all accounts we were in the midst of an all-out drunken brawl.
Unlike typical American drunks, the Germans aren’t violent drunks. In fact, I did not see a single fight or even harsh words. I had my share of Alt, but I was sober by local standards. Another of our group, Kay Bee, was also fairly sober. Around midnight we decided we were ready to go back to the hotel. The rest were still roaring to go. Kay and I left them after we ensured they had keys to the hotel. Fortunately, the keys had a sort of a business card attached to them with the address to the hotel.
Kay and I walked back to the hotel. It wasn’t until we got back that I realized I had left the only key to my room with my roommates Tim and Tom. My bag and the car keys were also in the room. Kay had the only key to her room. After pondering the situation for a while, Kay and I decided that the best course of action was for me to flop in her room, at least until her roommates arrived back at the hotel and/or until we heard Tim and Tom show up in the room next door. Ultimately, neither of those scenarios occurred, so I slept in a chair in wet and smelly clothes. I don’t remember hearing anything in the hallways all night, so I must have slept well.
For the rest of this sordid tale, the reader will have to wait for the next exciting episode where I likely saved someone’s life!
1. For a great discussion of the difference between good and bad complaining, I highly recommend Chapter 5 (Sweat the Small Stuff) in Congressman Dan Crenshaw’s book, “Fortitude.”