I needed a break.
Not a Kit Kat bar break, but a break from the roller coaster of a year called 1991. The first half was consumed by war—Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Desert Boredom. The second was slapped with mixed emotions mired in the muck of post-war decompression—relief, partying, debauchery, infidelity, anger, depression, insecurity, and uncertainty. I had a serious case of the fuck its.
That was just the latest in a string of clichés I endured throughout that year. In January, when I got off the plane in Saudi Arabia, it was “calm before the storm.” February was “frightened half to death.” March was an ambiguous “all’s well that ends well,” then April dumped the “Dear John letter” on me. I wasn’t totally surprised. The gloomy marital “writing on the wall” was evident the past couple of years. Still, it was a punch in the gut. My German wife found her German Jody. “All’s fair in love and war,” I guess.
So, months after all that, I was waiting on my divorce, after being married for seven years, and stumbling through any semblance of a romantic life while I partied my liver away. Not all was bad. I began freelancing for the military community newspaper, the Hanau Herald, something I had done at my previous CONUS duty station. But I was treading water as I contemplated my uncertain future. Hence, the fuck its.
I was hanging out with my lieutenant a lot, dog robbing, double dating, etc., and I guess he recognized my malaise.
“Want to go to Bavaria for Christmas?” he asked me one day in late November.
“Where in Bavaria?”
“Berchtesgaden,” he said, explaining the Armed Forces Recreation Center had a couple of hotels and other tour amenities in and around the town. Units across EUCOM were allocated a certain number of soldiers to go down for a week, before, during, and after Christmas. A belated R&R for those who had served in Southwest Asia. He was given a list and asked by the brass to prioritize candidates. The way he explained it, troublemakers, slackers, and problem folks were at the bottom of the list. But I, Specialist Dave Boe, who was “always working, thinking and getting shit done,” was at the top of the list. Go figure. So, I agreed, taking the week of Christmas.
I’d been to Bavaria a few times before. During my first tour in Germany, I pulled some duty at a winter training compound somewhere in the Alps. Then, a bunch of us from my first unit went to a military resort at Lake Chiemsee for a few days of summer relaxation. My wife and I spent part of our honeymoon in the region. It’s a beautiful German state rich in culture and history, and I was a culture and history guy, as the lieutenant knew.
I packed light; clothes for each day, toiletries, camera, and a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers. I had just finished Women in Love by him and was drawn to his moody characters. Don‘t know why.
I got lucky and drew the hotel located in town, the Berchtesgadener Hof. The old hotel was bought by the Nazis in 1936, remodeled and renamed, and used for dignitaries visiting Adolf Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. Nazi bigwigs such as Josef Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Herman Göring also dropped by. The U.S. Army took over the Berchtesgadener Hof in 1945, kept the name, ditched the Nazi flags, and gave it to the Armed Forces Recreation Center.
I shared a small room with four other guys. All of our free meals were served in the hotel’s spacious main dining room. It also had a nice lounge, but I was out and about most of the time, wandering the winding streets of the town or outlying areas.
Early on I took a tour of the Konigsee, a five-mile lake south of Berchtesgaden. Surrounded by mountains, the lake is calm and serene. It’s also considered the cleanest lake in Germany, so only electric passenger boats are allowed on it. I took one to the other side where the famous St. Bartholomew’s pilgrimage church and inn are located. I asked the tour guide what the pilgrim-tourist ratio was for the church. Slightly confused, she took a wild guess and assumed more tourists came than pilgrims. Close enough.
Another day I toured some former underground Nazi military facility. Wasn’t much there. A lot of confining tunnels, steep stairs, pipes, concrete, junk, and graffiti. I considered hiking up to the Eagle’s Nest, but was told the mountain road was closed during the winter and snowed in. I went for a look-see and sure enough, no way in hell I was getting up there.
But it was Berchtesgaden itself where I spent most of my time. I’d stroll down Hanielstrasse to the Old Town Center and wander around, checking out the shops, churches, bakeries, restaurants, and taverns. Good food and beer.
There were plenty of stalls at the Christmas Market, which was in full swing that week. No U.S. commercialism here. Just plain old German folksiness where one could buy handcrafted wooden decorations, beer steins, and crystal, or get a warm mug of glühwein, a mulled wine. It was at one of the glühwein stalls I met a young woman who was working there. She looked to be in her 20s, cute, but wasn’t wearing the traditional Bavarian dirndl or vest. I figured this was just a seasonal job for her. I poured on my charming but indifferent act while she poured the mulled wine. I managed to get her name, Isabell, and told her mine, but I didn’t want to come across as a pushy, horny G.I. I’m never pushy. After my third cup I left, walking around taking in more sights and sounds.
During the week I took photos. I was on an artsy black-and-white kick and took some nice shots of the mountains, palaces, churches, and trains at the Bahnhof.
Before I knew it, it was Christmas Eve. I spent the day reading and filling out postcards to family and friends back in Minnesota, and to my sons, Michael and Lars, who were six and four, respectively, and living with their mother in a town near Kaiserslautern, in Rheinland-Pfalz. I hadn’t thought a lot about them, or anyone for that matter, since coming to Berchtesgaden. I was there to relax, but sitting there, writing out the postcards, I couldn’t help but think about things—the past year, my marriage, my career, my kids. I hadn’t seen them much during the year, as they lived a couple hours away from my base. My wife said she would grant unlimited visitation after the divorce, but that didn’t mean much if I was back in the States. And when would that be? The Army was drawing down at the time, and I was considering taking the severance and getting out early. But if I got out, I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in Germany or go back to my home state of Minnesota and probably go to college on the G.I. Bill. The former was attractive, as I loved Germany and would be close to my kids, but I didn’t know about job prospects. The latter was the safe choice, but it meant an ocean between my kids and me. Granted, it also meant an ocean between my soon-to-be ex and me. A nice thought. Bottom line, my personal and professional future was replete with so many options and variables. But I had plenty of time to deal with them later. I tucked away my thoughts, finished the postcards, and dropped them at the front desk for mailing, then got ready for the evening and some holiday cheer.
Christmas Eve in Germany is a lot different from in the U.S. Not to sound like the intercontinental snob that I am, but I prefer the German version. I had read up on what they did in Bavaria, and it sounded interesting. I was especially looking forward to the “Weinachtsschutzen,” or Christmas shooting. A bunch of men dress up in the typical Bavarian hunting garb—jaeger jackets, lederhosen, and an alpine or miesbacher hat—and troop up into the hills and shoot off special-made, black powder pistols or rifles between 11:30 and midnight. According to what I read, Weinachtsschutzen in Berchtesgaden dated back to pagan rites when one’s sleeping nature was awakened to life again, or to scare off demons, evil spirits, and other annoyances. It’s also a reminder for folks to get their butts to midnight mass. It sounded like something I should experience.
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A little before 11:30 I went over to the Sonnenpromenade and found a bench where I could sit. The spot overlooked the Berchtesgadener Ache river, and across and beyond it were the wooded hills where, I was told, the Weinachtsshützen would take place. I scooted over to one end of the bench to make room for anyone else who might want to sit.
And someone did. She sat down on the other end and we both naturally glanced at each other. It was Isabell. Small world, or rather, small town. I got over my surprise and offered a “good evening” in English. She said hello.
“David, yes?” she added.
“Yes,” I answered. “Und Isabell, richtig?”
“Kleine Welt,” I said, using my limited German. She looked puzzled. “You and I, here. Same time.”
“Ah, yes,” she said, and pointed to my coat. “I remember your jacket.” Really?
“Well, there you go.” I said. “Nice evening.”
She agreed. After that my memory gets a little foggy. I know we sorted out that we were both there for the Weinachtsshützen. We spoke in English and I talked about what I had done since arriving, how nice it was here and so on. She remarked how there would be a lot of American “soldiers” here throughout the year, but during Christmas, the town gets many visitors from around the world to enjoy the wonderful Christmas experience in Bavaria. I got the feeling that everyone who lived in Berchtesgaden was an unofficial indentured tour guide.
Then the shooting began. The sporadic flashes were far enough away that I couldn’t see anything else in the darkness. Shortly after we heard the muted crack, crack, crack of the discharges, followed by their echoes through the valley. Isabell and I sat there quietly, watching and listening to the spectacle. I never thought the firing of guns could be so calming. Peaceful. Comforting. There were no “oohs” or “aahs” from the surrounding people, like on the Fourth of July. And no one yelled out, “Be gone, evil spirits!” That would have been funny. The only sound was the crackle of the guns and some clapping when it ended. There was no grand finish, just a gradual lessening of the firing.
Isabell got up and said she was going to Mass. Then she stood there for a moment. Was she giving me a silent invite to go with her? Despite my ego poking me in the ribs, I really didn’t know, and I never would. Besides, I didn’t want to go to Mass. I was a fallen Presbyterian. I just said OK, to enjoy Mass, and mentioned how nice it was to spend this special time with her.
“Danke,” she replied.
“Bitte,” I said. “Frohe Weinachten.”
Isabell answered back the same, but it sounded a little different. Her Bavarian dialect?
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Then she walked away. I drew out my hip flask, took a couple of nips, and looked out into the dark valley. I envisioned the marksmen across the way, packing up and heading home, or to church, or to a bar. An annual evening tradition completed. And it was a nice evening. Sharing it with a pretty fraulein for a brief time was a bonus, but even without Isabell, I would have enjoyed it. Tomorrow was Christmas day and I didn’t have anything planned. It wasn’t the first time I had spent a holiday away from family, so not a big deal. The following day I headed back to my post in Fliegerhorst. Back to the circumstances that indirectly caused me to be here in this little Bavarian town. I still had challenges to face, in and out of uniform, in and out of country. I’d still have bad days and bad nights.
But not tonight. Fuck it. I was at peace now. That meant I would be at peace some other time, in some other place. That was a comfort. Those marksmen across the valley did their job tonight.
The evil spirits were giving me a break.