Rockets, History and Marketing

NASA, let’s be honest here, is not that great at P.R.

To be fair about it, it’s not a priority that’s exactly outlined in their charter, either. Their job is to hurl stuff into space and make the hurl-ee do cool, amazing stuff, sometimes with the added difficulty of having easily damaged human beings onboard. Still, what they do, do is really some of the most mind blowing stuff humankind has ever pulled off, and they let the world actually see happen!

Think about it.

It’s a major government agency, building and working exclusively with what are essentially, multi-billion dollar prototype spacecraft crammed full of new ideas and revolutionary systems, and you, the public, are invited to see them light the biggest fire under it that you an imagine and find out if it works or explodes. Talk about some serious performance pressure! To be sure, NASA must sit on a small mountain range worth of classified material, but still, I’m willing to bet that you get to see way more of what’s happening with our space program than you’d be get to see at say, an Air Force research facility or even Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. NASA belongs to us and what they’re up to is not shrouded in secret but rather, out on display.

Successes and failures alike.

And did I mention that IT’S AMAZING?!?

This is what kept bugging me as Short Stack and I walked through the shopping area and back towards the field for launch time. Kennedy Space Center is a beautiful little theme park and museum complex dedicated to our country’s space travel, the zenith of our technological spirit, but somehow, it all manages to slip below the notice of about ninety percent of this country. Most Americans don’t even seem to care, and when they do, it’s often for the wrong reason.

“I think we should, you know… stop spending all that money on going into space. We have plenty to worry about here and we could really use those funds better elsewhere.”

About one in every three people I talk to about the space program comes back at me with some variation of this and it pains me to hear it each and every time.

It’s not that they’re wholly wrong, either. Problems and suffering abound in our country and abroad in vast quantities. That can never be disputed. The real issue is about where the money goes, and that is now and has forever been a prickly issue. I’m fairly sure that it shall remain so until the end of time. There is always someone who needs help or some piece of infrastructure that needs construction or maintenance. People need help and our physical world also needs protecting from those very same people. It’s a fact of life. The thing is, so far as I can see, the space program is one, perhaps the only, endeavor that looks beyond our own human problems and focuses our eyes beyond the little sphere of troubles and issues we deal with constantly and shows us our scale in the universe. As I look up, it’s like we are children standing at the open doors of the largest library ever made… and we are electing to sit on the front steps rather than go in and start reading.

The chief argument for curbing space exploration is a monetary one and the outlay for a space program is indisputably massive. In 2008, the United States funded NASA to the tune of $17.3 billion dollars, and to be sure, that could do a lot of good to a lot of people, but here’s the thing: We spend a heck of a lot of money doing things that on a whole, are not on humankind’s positive list, and I don’t see them likely to stop being funded either. I won’t get into the good and bad our military forces have done over our history, but the reality is that for better or worse, it’s still a military. It’s designed to fight and kill. That’s its whole point for being. Even with countries whom have vowed that their own armies are to be used for defensive purposes only and have forsworn aggression in all its forms, it’s still an army and intended for war, necessary or not. On the grand scale, war is a negative. It’s the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves. Space exploration however, is about learning and building. Though it has been accelerated through the powers of governments in wartime, the world’s nations have ultimately decided to keep weapons out of space and stick to trying to understand it and study the universe rather than populate it with yet more ways of killing each other. With that decision made, space exploration comes out as a huge positive for us all. Which would you prefer? Air to ground rockets or ground to moon rockets? Incidentally, that seventeen-plus billion spent in 2008 on space research? That accounts for a whopping point six of one percent of that year’s federal budget. When was the last time you were satisfied with point six of one percent of anything?

I understand that it’s not really a straight up either/or situation, but it does have some bearing when budgets are drawn up. There’s only so much money to spend and if you think that the government is going to, in any meaningful way, say, “Guess what? We have too much. Here’s yours back” than you need to look a lot closer at how governments work.

Personally, I’d rather fund the far reaching stuff that will move mankind on to the next level. Who knows, at some point space agency funding might just eclipse military spending and on that day, I will be a very, very happy man. I’ll also probably be living in a fantasy land of my own creation and wearing a snappy new white coat that ties in the back, but hey, you’ve gotta dream, right?

It’s how we got to the moon, after all.

But I digress…

As I looked at what was on display in windows and on pedestals, all I could think about was, “How can most people not see how cool this all is? Why can’t we do way, WAY more of it?”

The answer, in advertising parlance, is “Buy In”

NASA is terrible at it.

The money that made all the things that have happened here at Cape Canaveral for more than fifty years now comes from the U.S. Government Budget and that money is allocated by politicians. NASA has been doing a pretty good job at selling to them, but they seem to have largely forgotten us normal folk and we are where all the money comes from in the first place. It seemed to me as I looked around at all the incredible things that we have managed to do in space, that what NASA really needs to do is get the populace, not the politicians excited. The politicians will follow. That is, after all, how they get to keep their jobs.

Walking back toward the food tent, Short Stack and I glanced over the kitsch that was for sale here and there and largely, were left unimpressed by the offerings. T-shirts, hats, key chains. Things that are universal at any holiday spot. Just the printing is different. Not that we didn’t want some to take home later on, it was just that… it seemed somehow… trite as they lay in the shadow of the legendary rockets that carried Alan Shepard, John Glenn and all the others beyond our little blue-green planet. As we munched on our newly purchased kielbasa and chips, I kept looking up at those towering monuments and wondered where our global enthusiasm had gone.

“Hi! Mind if we share your table?”

I was speaking to a middle aged man who sat alone at one of the few picnic benches that wasn’t covered with slumbering launch watchers, and with his, “No. Not at all.” Short Stack and I joined him and I basked in the ability to momentarily get off my feet. My son, like the little nuclear reactor he is, ran around us, in orbit of our seat, only venturing close by every three or four revolutions to come in for a bite. Where does his energy come from?!

After feeding my little satilite another piece of our late night snack, my open nature took over and I turned to our lone tablemate.

“What a perfect night, huh?

He glanced over, gave me a somewhat weak smile and then, seeming to catch himself, visibly snapped up a bigger, better grin.

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The Tone in Dresden. Part V

The stairs went down at a very un-OSHA friendly incline and the treads, though made of stone, were well worn. They also looked vigorously unforgiving if you happened to loose your footing and got to the bottom the fast way. We made sure to use the handrail. At the bottom an open doorway to the left opened into a wide and low room capped by a repetition of double barrel-vaulted arches. To our left was the bar, made of dark wood and traditional in every aspect. Scattered throughout the room were tables with booths hugging the walls, all crowded with patrons. The music was jazz and it was evident that jazz was the reason 99% of the people here, had come. A second doorway was just visible along the wall opposite the bar. We couldn’t see what was going on in there. The way in was blocked with the backsides of other jazz lovers who stoppered up the portal. It was standing room only, who ever was playing.

We quickly grabbed a booth that was vacated and took in our surroundings. One thing was for sure. One of us needed to go for beer. Mountain Man went up and picked up the first round. Fine black beer from the south. We happily drank and listened to the old style jazz that was being performed in the next chamber. It was a fantastic way to spend an evening, we both agreed. After a little while, the beers were drained and it was time for another round or to head out. We had time. Another round, it was.

I had been having a great time traveling with my friends but my lack of knowledge in the German language was driving me crazy. Everywhere we went, I was dependent on one of my fellow travelers decoding everything for me. I felt like the old, deaf aunt that had been dragged along on vacation and needed humoring and constant help ordering the chicken broth soup. I made up my mind. I would get the beer. That, I could manage.

“You sure?” Mountain Man looked at me with an arched eyebrow.
“Yah, how hard can it be? So what do you want?” I tried to look confident.
“Umm. Just another Schwarz Bier. You sure?”

With a dismissive wave of my hand, I got up and walked toward the bar.

When I was a little kid, I discovered my Father’s “German One” book from his college days. I thought it was fascinating and he happily showed me some of the vocabulary from the early chapters. Though he only took it for one semester and had forgotten most of what was covered, he did manage to teach me how to count to ten.

Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier, Fünf, Sechs, Sieben, Acht, Neun, Zehn.

I had all the components to make my order.

The number: Zwei (two)
The item: Bier (beer)
The type: Schwarz (stout)
And, a “please”: Bitte

I repeated it to my self under my breath as I approached the bar.

“Zwei schwarz Bier, bitte… Zwei schartz Bier, bitte… Zwei schartz Bier, bitte.”

I returned to our booth clutching three large beers.
“Uhh, what’s with the third…” Mountain Man looked confused.
“Shut up and drink. I don’t want to talk about it. Don’t you dare laugh”.

He didn’t need to. I could see his eyes twinkling at me with mirth over his foamy glass.

Dammit!

I had somehow, at the last second, blurted out “Drei schwarz Bier, bitte” With out hesitation, the barman had filled up three large glasses from the tap. I had no way to explain my error. Making him stop mid pour would have only made for a confusing moment for both of us. I got what I ordered and headed back to my table. Ugh.

The last problem encountered was that Mountain Man and I had already eaten a large dinner and then poured two giant glasses of heavy stout on top of it. We were stuffed and the third beer loomed at us like an unwanted friend. It was time to complete my humiliation. Next to us sat a nice looking, middle-aged couple, quietly enjoying the music and scene. Mountain Man offered the beer to them. Understandably, they were more than a little reserved at first. Then the situation was explained in his aggravatingly perfect German and you could see the two of them starting to get the joke. They smiled. She chuckled. I turned interesting shades of red and inspected the ceiling for… stuff.

As it turned out, the man spoke some English and we had a brief yet enjoyable conversation with them. We learned that the Tone was actually part of the old palace wine cellars and that it was THE place to come to for live music in this part of Dresden. They were also rather shocked that we found it at all since it was mostly locals who came here. Not tourists. He took the beer with thanks and we eventually found our way out of the bar, back up the stairs and into the cold night air.

The walk to the train station wasn’t far and we were eager to find our seats. We were tired and a bit tipsy and adventures a-plenty lay ahead. That night, the train pulled out into the dark with two happy tourists asleep and hogging the compartment all to them selves. It was a long trip, but that was fine. Tomorrow, we’d be in Friedrichshafen on lake Bodensee and then to Salzburg. I couldn’t wait.


Photo from here

I hope I can get back to the Tonne some day. For starters, I can hold my own now with the locals when it comes to chit chat and ordering. Also, there’s a guy there who owes me a beer.

End.

The Tone in Dresden, Part IV

“How on earth do you know they are going to Pirna?” To say I was skeptical is an understatement.

“The license plate, dummy.” She sweetly explained. It ends in ‘PRN’. I bet that stands for Pirna. Car plates in Germany tell you where the car is registered and that one’s registered in the city we can’t find. We’ll just follow it and see where it takes us.” Zen navigation. I like it.

We bumped along, chasing our unsuspecting pathfinder through rotaries and turn offs. We were actually having fun with this. Tailing our randomly picked car through the dark and drizzle coated streets of former East Germany, it felt like shadows of the secret police were driving with us. After a relatively short time, we started recognizing landmarks again. We were delivered to our destination and we let our scout car break free into the night. A short wobble up the stairs and we collapsed into various bunk beds to sleep off the night’s adventures.

My companions woke first and spent the early morning sitting by the window chatting and watching as gliders took off and landed in the field behind the youth hostel. Gliding has always been popular in Germany and it was nice to see that the sport continues. Once I managed to rouse my self out of bed I headed off to the highly questionable shower. About eight centimeters of water filled the large communal shower basin as four or five showerheads did their best to flood out the floors below. With only a brief pause I stepped in, flip fops still on and did my best to clean up.

We wasted no time getting back to the old city, this time taking careful note of the way back. We found a car park near the city center and moved out on foot. Two things stood out to me. First was the decay. There were still a lot of scars from WWII here. Some buildings that had burned in the bombing of 1945 still showed streaks of black above each and every window. The back alleys and smaller roads looked neglected. What was once a city park now covered in waist high grass with a massive black gas pipe cutting it in half, gates locked to the public.

The second thing that you could not escape seeing were the cranes. Cranes were everywhere and they thrust up from the city skyline like church steeples of construction. Dresden was being rebuilt. That was message that rang out from building site to building site. Things were finally changing and they were changing fast.

After we met up with Carla again we set out to see the town. There was a lot to pick from. Though it was a bit of a whirlwind tour, there are a few things that stand apart. The first was an old man playing an ancient hurdy-gurdy, complete with monkey and tin cup. The instrument looked rather worse for wear, but the sound was unmistakable and briefly enjoyable. A bit like bagpipes are. They make you smile, and then you retreat to a safe distance, well out of earshot.

In the days of the DDR, soft coal was used extensively for heating, and the city showed its effects. Massive stone edifices, having been bathed in the cinders of thousands of coal furnaces, were black and disfigured. One of these black smeared giants was the Katholische Hofkirche, the catholic cathedral that is one of Dresden’s unmistakable landmarks. We walked around to the front door and stepped inside. My breath was taken away. From the filth that clung to the exterior of the church, I was ready to see a somber and dark space within. Not so. Gleaming white walls and golden angelic statuary towered over us as we respectfully kept our silence so as not to disturb the service in progress. The effect of this dazzling open space made it feel as though you were stepping from a gloomy room and into the bright day, when in fact you had stepped from the outside to in. It was amazing to behold and gave you hope for the city’s reconstruction.

The next stop was the Zwinger Palace. This massive complex was ordered constructed by Augustus the Strong in 1689 to house his incredible art collection. The buildings surround a large central plaza and is a perfect example of royal excess. The majority of the structure was destroyed and burned out on the night of February 14, 1945 in the massive Allied bombing raid. After the war, in an uncharacteristically thoughtful move, the communist government decided to rebuild it exactly as it had stood prior to that terrible night. Oddly enough, due to the air pollution that had plagued the region, the new Zwinger looks as though it had stood there, unmolested for the last four hundred years. Inside was the art and we spent much of the day there. It was a day well spent. About half way through the museum palace, I rounded a corner to find an oversized painting of Mary, holding the infant Jesus while being gazed at reverently by some hangers on. What stopped me in my tracks were the cherubs at the bottom. Not just any cherubs, but THE cherubs. Those two little fat kids with wings that have somehow caught on across the U.S. and are immediately recognizable to anyone who’s been inside a Pier 1 Imports or any greetings card shop.

So THAT’S where they were from! As an artist and art teacher, I was embarrassed that it had never occurred to me that there was more to the painting than just the two pudgy angel babies. Who knew?

As the day wound down, we headed to a movie house where I was introduced to the concept of eating good food and drinking beer, all while enjoying a movie. It was the perfect way to end the day. Mountain Man and I were leaving our friends Carla and Laura from here. We would be traveling on to Salzburg on our own while they both needed to head off home. After good byes and addresses were exchanged, we watched them both disappear into the evening. The night was still young and our train wasn’t due for hours so with out hesitation, Mountain Man and I set out to find some fun. We found it in the form of a bit of ruined wall gradually rising from the ground. It was a fragment of the old palace foundation, left over after the post war clean up. In the middle of the wall was an open door way leading to a long and steep set of stairs that disappeared under the city. A neon sign balanced over the entry was twisted into the shape of a yellow trumpet. Below that was just one word, “Tonne”.

In we went.

The Tone in Dresden, Part III

As we worked our way through the suburbs of Dresden, the view was less than inspiring. All around us was the rusting wreckage of Soviet era industry. Dilapidated buildings full of frozen machinery simply walked away from by its workers once the State no longer existed to prop it up. My memory of much of the ground that showed through snow appeared in rude shades of red and yellow, mirroring the shades of the forgotten steel trusses and tanks, now sitting disused and fenced off from hapless passers by. It was obvious that it would take years to clean up. If any one could do it well however, I had faith in the ability and efficiency of the Germans.

Once the outskirts had been successfully pasted, we drove to the heart of Dresden. Well, Perhaps, “heart” isn’t quite right… The lungs, then. We had to meet up with Carla’s friend, Laura. The place scheduled for our meeting was one of the beautiful stone churches that punctuated the cityscape. Old and massive, our meeting place loomed against the grey skyline and we piled out of the car, unfolding long bent legs and backs.

“So, where are we meeting her exactly?” I asked.
“Hmmm.” Carla thought for a moment. “I didn’t ever really specify a place. I just told her to meet us at the church.”

I can see how this could sound like a good plan but there is one thing to consider. These churches are huge! Dozens of people milled around the square in front of the church and since our new travel companion wasn’t quickly spotted, we decide to go looking. Mountain Man had met Laura once and so I went off with him while Carla went off alone to search. True to form, once Carla was out of sight, Mountain Man threw me a curve ball.

“I don’t really remember what Laura looks like.”
“Eh? Then what good are we going to be? There’s not much we can do, then.” I retorted.
He looked back at me with his big, goofy smile. “Let’s just ask around. One of them must be Laura.”

So, the two of us walked around the church asking young woman if they were Laura. In retrospect, I’m more than a little amazed that we didn’t get questioned by the police. After only a little while, we were rewarded for our persistence when we did, in fact, find Laura. Well, actually, it was “a woman named Laura”, but not “OUR” Laura. A brief and somewhat confused conversation with the indulging lady and we figured out that she was not the Laura we were looking for. Just as we were completing our apologies and goodbyes with Laura #1, Carla appeared with Laura #2. The correct Laura had been found.

After a round of introductions, and a brief flurry of chitchat in auf deutsch, Laura noticed that I wasn’t joining in the conversation. Once informed that I didn’t speak German, she quickly switched to a very nice, upper class British English. As it turned out, that was no hardship for her. She was, as it turned out, English. Her father was in the British military and had been stationed in Germany, where the family lived during most of her young life. Later on she explained that she’d actually spent more time here than she dad in England.

Carla knew of a place we could all stay for cheap in the out skirts of the city. Technically, it wasn’t even in Dresden but in a town called Pirna. As we passed back through some of the old industrial wreckage, Carla told us about the way it was when she grew up here.

“The city was still a mess. There were bombed out buildings everywhere, left over from the war. The Russians didn’t foster fixing the old buildings, too much. Most of the programs were about new construction. Giant apartment blocks and manufacturing complexes. For fun after school, my friends and I would go and dig through the old ruins, looking for treasures. All the industry made the air here filthy. My father worked in one of these plants and I, for one, am not sad to see them closed. They were awful.”

As the story ended, we pulled into a parking lot. Looming over us was the quintessential Soviet era hostelry. It was a mustard colored block with windows and a door. Once inside, the décor did not change much. The best parts were the goodies being sold at the check in counter. They were still trying to sell off the last of their DDR flavored memorabilia. Key chains, patched and stickers did their best to evoke pride in a cast off and failed system. Happily, I bought some to stick on my truck and confuse folks back home.

After check in, we stowed our stuff and headed out on the town. This is where things start to get fuzzy for me. It was late in the day by now and we were getting hungry and thirsty. The hunger was taken care of at a Chinese restaurant that Carla knew of. The thirst was taken care of at a variety of venues. As the evening wore on, Carla informed us that she was going to be heading along. This wasn’t a surprise. She had told us earlier that her mother lived in Dresden and she was going to be spending the night with her. We wished her good by and made plans to meet tomorrow. As she walked away from our little group, I increasingly became aware that none of us left knew what to do next. Laura didn’t know Dresden very well and Mountain Man and I, not at all. So, we did what we could. We had another beer.

Once we realized that we needed to get back to the hostel and had completed a chilly “sober up” walk, we encountered another problem. None of us were sure where Pirna was. After a quick and lively discussion, we started to drive in the direction of consensus. It was not a sure thing, by any stretch. Three sets of eyes swept the road signs in the hopes of finding the breadcrumbs that would lead us home. Nothing… Not good.

“A-Ha! There we go!” It was Laura.
“What? Where!?” Mountain Man and I shot forward in our seats and scanned the dark roadsides.
She triumphantly declared, “The car in front of us! They’re from Pirna! We’ll just follow them!”

Either she was joking, had an unbelievable memory for cars or knew something I didn’t. Which ever it was, I wasn’t the one driving so the choice to take the next exit wasn’t mine. At least I had the back seat to my self. That would be comfortable enough to seep on.

Next, I actually get to the city!

The Tone in Dresden, Part II

So, that was the extent of the cultural diversity in this little corner of the former East German Republic. One half Danish. It was an eye opening experience for both parties and the first time I ever really considered the “Great American Melting Pot” that was so enthusiastically explained to us when were kids. I finally got it. The day went by pleasantly if not cluelessly for me. The summit of my embarrassment came when I had the pleasure of visiting a first grade class. The students were happy, orderly and charming. The thing that stood out to me was the inescapable fact that this bunch of six year olds spoke far more English than I did German. I had willingly tossed my self into a place where I was woefully inept at communicating with the locals in their own tongue and I was really starting to feel like a bozo for my lack of prowess.

Over the next few days, Mountain Man introduced me to his friend Carla, the art teaching English teacher. We three hit it off wonderfully and we decided that a road tip was in order. There was a school vacation coming up at the end of the week and the decision was made that we should go and visit Carla’s hometown, Dresden. I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect. As a student of history, my mental images of Dresden were of after the bombing in 1945. Slaughter House Five, essentially. I knew historical Dresden, but not what was there now. I was in for a real treat.

The night before we departed, we headed out to Carla’s house for dinner and a tour of her village. The house was an amazing site all on its own. Standing at something like five stories high, it was 90% roof and all thatch. The whole structure reminded me more of an enormous hay bale rather than a home. This was a typical farm house for the region and traditional in every way. It was also beautiful and like something out of a storybook. Carla welcomed us in and gave the grand tour. The family lived on the first floor only. Traditionally, there would have been a place for the larger live stock right in the middle of the house. The winds that blow down out of Siberia are cold and the flat terrain does little to impede them. A nice warm cow in the house throws a lot of heat… and other stuff, but most importantly, heat.


(not Carla’s house, but a dead ringer for it. Picture from here)

Carla had built a barn out back and the cow had been replaced with a wood stove. Smart girl. The house was very nice and she showed us with pride all the things that she and her family had made from scratch, including the couch, necessitated by life lived under the DDR. You never tried to buy something that you could make or trade for. Chances are, even if you had the cash, what ever you wanted wasn’t available anyway. The whole house was a lesson in ingenuity. The massive multiple attics were filled with non-perishable foods, old luggage and, to quote Carla, “giant spiders”. I refrained from a detailed inspection.

On one shelf back in the main house, something caught my eye. It was a little ceramic statue of the, “Hear, see and speak no evil” monkeys. I had noticed the figurines in the place Mountain Man was staying at as well and remarked on them. “Oh,” replied Carla. “You’ll see those a lot. It goes back to the DDR times. They were to remind you to be careful about what you said or did. You never knew who was listening. The Stasi had informants everywhere. We used them as little reminders to watch what we said out loud and to whom.” That was a sobering thought. Freedom of expression was still something very new here in the eastern part of reunified Germany. It would be a while before people stopped looking over their shoulders before they spoke.

The next morning, we were off to Dresden. We packed into Carla’s little BMW and zipped off across the frosty fields. The coffee steamed up the windows as the radio burbled away in Polish. “That’s the thing about America,” said Carla. “All you hear on the radio is English. Here in Germany, I grew up listening to so many other languages that they all stuck to one degree or another.” She was correct, regarding the place where I grew up, anyway. The closest I ever got to a foreign language was listening to the little, old French Canadian ladies chat at the super market or the Latin in church. Either way, hardly something to learn a language from. She had grown up listening to Polish, Czech, Russian and in secret, English via Radio Free Europe. Language was part of her life and I told her how right she was in the only language I had. She followed this up with a joke.

“What do you call someone who can speak three languages?”
“Trilingual”, I replied.
“What do you call someone who can speak two languages?”
“Bilingual.”
“That’s right! How about one language?”
“Ummm. Monolingual?” I groped.
“No. American!”

Rueful laughter and knowing looks ricocheted around the car as we sped along. Again, she was right, of course.

Only kilometers out side the city limits, traffic slowed down to a crawl. There was some unseen issue ahead and the cars on the motorway started to bunch up and we realized that we would be here for a while. The chatted and solved the worlds problems and at a walking pace edged forward. After a while a large truck came into view at the side of the road. At first we thought that they were perhaps the reason for the bad traffic. As we got closer we realized that, no, it wasn’t their fault. They had merely pulled out of the line of inching cars and parked for a moment. The reason was immediately obvious. There, next to the truck stood the drive and his co-pilot, their backs to the road and hands down in front of them. A geyser of steam billowed up from the cold ground where they were relieving themselves of that morning’s coffee. Carla blushed and made a comment about how crass the situation was. Mountain Man and I mostly felt badly for them. We were in the middle of farm country and you would have had to hike away from the road and over the horizon to pee in private. Feeling a bit roguish, Mountain Man leaned over and tapped the center of the steering wheel, sending a friendly, “Beep Beep!” out to the two truckers. Carla just about melted under the dash. In unison, the two men looked over their right shoulders, smiled and waved with their free hand. We waved back enthusiastically. If Carla had had a periscope, she would have been driving with its aide. Run silent, run deep.

A half an hour or so later, we finally picked up speed and made it to the edge of the city of Dresden. It had been a longer trip than we expected but we had enjoyed the trip. Now it was time to find a place to stay and get something to eat. That, and it was also almost time for me to understand just how badly I wanted to speak another language. We were meeting a friend of Carla’s in Dresden and as a group of four, I would be the only one who didn’t know what everyone was talking about all the time or accidentally ordering the side of squid eyeballs when all I wanted was a salad. Aah, to be American.

Next installment of the Tone, later. Stay tuned!

The Tone in Dresden, Part I

The traffic had pretty much ground to a halt and through our lightly frosted car windows, the view of the empty and snow dusted wheat fields was flat and unremarkable. We had been driving now for several hours and the traffic jam, still several kilometers out side of our destination, was a bit disheartening. The cause of for my chagrin wasn’t based in the company I had in the car. Far from it. It was rooted more to the realization that I was having a blast and that these days spent in adventure after adventure were finite. Eventually, I’d have to go home. I was in Germany with my friend, Mountain Man, his friend and co-worker Carla and we were heading to her hometown, Dresden.

We were heading there very, very slowly.

I love visiting Germany, and doing so with Mountain Man and his preposterously perfect German makes it that much better. His own reason for being here started several years previous when he was signing up for classes at university. Apparently, he had struck up a conversation with (was hitting on) a cute girl as the two of them waited in line to register for classes. When she got her chance to pick her classes, she turned out to be a German Major. Not wanting to miss his chance, Mountain Man decided on the spot that English could take a poetic leap and changed his classes to match hers. That’s his style. Oddly enough, it seems to work for him, too. This man fears nothing and is aggravatingly good at surviving his spur of the moment, whacked-out decisions. Fast forward some years and now you have Mountain Man living and teaching in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship and inviting his friends to drop by for a visit. The girl who stated him on this road is long gone, but that hardly matters now. What it meant is that I had a friend in Deutschland!

The trip to Dresden was not one that I had expected to make but this opportunity was far too amazing to miss. Carla was a teacher at the school where Mountain Man was placed. The Wall had only been down for a few years and there was still a lot of DDR infrastructure that needed to be set light to. Trabants, the East German version of what a car would look like if it were built by a toy company, were still fairly plentiful, as were a lot of the old institutional buildings, like schools. Not this one though! This school was brand-new and everyone in the village, especially the kids, was very proud of it.

Mountain Man had been placed there to help expand the English program. Carla had been teaching Art as well as English and Russian for years at the old DDR school. With the move to the brand new building and with out much cause for students to take Russian anymore, she was working hard at polishing her English. Specifically, she wanted to learn American English. Much of what was being taught at the time was British English, but that is not what the former East Germans wanted to learn. They wanted to sound like they were from Hollywood. Mountain Man, being from New Hampshire, did his best as a stand in.

When I arrived, as a newly minted art teacher in my own right, I was informed by my friend that he had secured permission for me to teach at his school as well. I’d be in the upper level, conversational language classes teaching the students and faculty alike to say things like, “trunk” rather than “boot” and, “flashlight” rather than “torch”. It sounded like fun! That night, Mountain Man made me some dinner with his patented, “Salty As All Get Out, Baking Soda Flavored Biscuits” and I tried my best to gather my jet lagged brain for the next day.

The next day I was introduced to the director and some of the other teachers and given a cup of coffee that could have fueled a small city for a day. Hardly anyone spoke English and I spoke hardly any German at this point. A project I have been working hard on ever since. Once the handshakes were done and we found our way to the classroom, I was quickly greeted by about twenty-five intensely interested teenagers. It felt a bit like being an exhibit in a zoo.

As you can imagine, not speaking the language of the land and supposedly being there to teach, can make a guy a bit… freaked out. I put on my best, “I’m a teacher” look and let Mountain Man explain to the students that what they had right there in the class room was a bone fide, clueless American and to go to it. The questions began…

“Where are you from?”
“What do you do for work?”
“Are you married?”
“Do you like American TV?”

These were the softball questions and simple to work with. After a few minutes, they started to dry up and they needed to actually come up with some more difficult and hopefully embarrassing questions. They did not disappoint. The first question that made me pause and feel like an idiot was, “What German bands do you like?” Teenagers often define themselves by what groups they are into and they were all obviously interested in what I had to say.

“German groups? Ahhh… Hmmm.” I swear, all I could think of was Falco of, “Rock me, Amadeus” fame or Daft Punk. The problem being that, A: Falco was Austrian and, B: I didn’t like Daft Punk. The only other name that came to mind was Marlene Dietrich, and I don’t think that would have made my position any better. I punted and talked instead about how German music doesn’t get over to the States much and how I’d love to hear what they like. Phew. Break down averted.

The next question was one that really caught me off guard. “Are their any Indians left in America?” The idea of the native tribes of my homeland being wiped out entirely was a thought that, though dreamed about and drooled over by some of my ancestors, had never occurred to me. “Yes! There are quite a lot of Indians still living in America.” Then the follow up: “Have you ever seen one?”

I was still a bit off balance from the previous question, so had I been more cool headed, I might have relished the theater of the moment a bit. As it was, I simply blurted out, “You’re looking at one right now.” That stopped them cold! The room was full of parted lips and eyeballs, all pointed at me. I had to clarify things quickly. There was more to it than that.

“Well, I’m not just Indian. I’m also English, French, Irish, Scottish, and Sicilian as well as two different Indian tribes.” The eyeballs got bigger and the quiet of the room was practically tactile. In the back of a row of seats, a lone hand went up followed by a single voice. “My mother is Danish.”

Stay tuned for the next thrilling installment of “Clueless Man Goes on Holiday!”

A House guest in France

Action Girl meets a lot of interesting people because of her job. She gets to be helpful to a wide range of people and that tends to make folks react in a positive way to her. Some folks bake brownies for her, some folks bring her gifts of hot coffee. One individual has a house in southern France and invited her and her husband (me) to visit and stay for a few days.

Now an offer like that is a bitter-sweet one. A place to stay in France is nothing to sneeze at but on the other hand, being in the right neighborhood to take advantage of such an offer… Well, lets just say that we’re not the type to go “popping” off to Europe on a whim.

So the offer stood for about three years, with Action Girl being reminded from time to time by our would-be host. Then, one year we decided it was time for another epic back packing trip. This was going to be a doosie though. We had decided that it was high time we started a family and this would be our “last ho-rah” journey. As it turned out, it wasn’t, but we didn’t know that at the time. We would be gone for three weeks to tromp, train and travel across our beloved Germany, into Alsace and finally at our generous friend’s house in the heart of Southern France. The Ardeche. When our host found out we were coming, his exact words to Action Girl were, “When you run out of money, come visit me!”

This time, we planned the trip right. We would do all the heavy traveling first and then leave the last week or so to relax and enjoy a slower pace. We flew into Zurich, found our way into Germany and were back in back packing bliss.

The trip was wonderful and we had a great time. I’ll get into that in another post. What’s important is that it all went just as we hoped. Our heavy travel schedule was finished up around week two and Action Girl made the call to France. We were in Frankfurt at the moment but got our directions to travel to Paris, then Leon, then Montelimar and then on to his small village. No problem for seasoned travelers. As always, things never work out in reality the way they do on paper.

It was May 1st when we climbed into the train departing for Paris. What could possibly go wrong. Well, for starters… it was May 1st and we were going to Paris.

Any one see this coming? Any one? Any one? Bueller?

More later…

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