Das Waren Zeiten

I wish Mel Brooks, maestro of the Broadway hit and the even funnier movie version of “The Producers” — his whacko inspiration that made an insane musical comedy out of Nazi Germany — could have been with us one inebriated night a generation and more ago.

Who knows what more zaniness Brooks’ twisted humor could have added? Especially if he had guzzled as much wine as my fellow airmen and I had. The possibilities are endless. Because I’m sober as I write this, I won’t try to come up with any. I’m not that creative. Or addled, take your pick.

Sunset over the Mosel near the village of Wolf - the setting of this story
Sunset over the Mosel near the village of Wolf (Johan Wieland)

It was during the three years of service to my friends and neighbors at the now closed Hahn Air base, perched on a modest range of hills between the Rhine and Mosel rivers in the heart of western Germany’s wine growing country.

Every spring, the towns along the Mosel celebrate the year’s local vintage with a festival, when everyone crowds under a tent,and, to the tune of loud band music, knocks back as much of the dry, potent white wine as the conscience or kidneys will allow.

My colleagues and I, members of a security police outfit, welcomed winefest season as a break from a 9-day cycle of long hours, day and night, guarding flight lines and checking security passes. We hit them all, from the large, tourist attracting fests at Bernkastel and Zell, to tiny, one tent affairs at overlooked villages.

This particular fest was obviously known to no one except the folks who lived there and a half dozen Amerikaners. We arrived shortly after midnight, following a 9-hour swing shift and 30 kilometer trip down a winding mountain road.

As we entered the tent, the band, which had obviously been priming itself on the local product all evening, sounded its last sour notes and passed out.

We had started a third round of the tall green bottles when some inspired soul hooked up a record player and began playing scratchy records of antique Teutonic marches.

The music meant nothing to us, but the tinny marches inspired the German crowd of 70 or so. Within moments, the men were on their feet, one behind the other.

They proceeded to goose-step, legs rising stiffly at right angles, around the tent, past the tables. It reminded me of an ancient news reel, except that the marchers were rough work clothes, not sharply tailored uniforms and World War II vintage Wehrmacht steel helmets.

In moments, it seemed, the music, the wine, and the camaraderie worked on each other, and suddenly, the calendar rolled back: Der Fuehrer’s in his chancellery and all’s right mit der Reich.

We saw three, maybe four marchers, snap their right arms stiff in the air, palm out,in the Hitler salute.

They did it again, and a third time. We thought it hilarious, and flipped the salute back. Things were a little hazy by then — the wine was working on us — but I know some of the locals grinned at our table. I know none of the handful who had saluted paid any attention to us .

We suspected even then that our behavior was asinine. Looking back at it, I think an appropriate punishment for the six of us would have been to send us to bed without any supper.

Image: Sunset over the Mosel near the village of Wolf - the setting of this story. Photo taken by Johan Wieland from his Flickr photostream and used under creative commons license.
Bill Montgomery

Bill Montgomery

Bill Montgomery, aka "Monty," packed it in a few years back after 38 years as a reporter with the AJC, covering mostly crime and other forms of public insanity, such as political campaigns, strip club crackdowns, and the Georgia legislature. His career includes coverage of zanies that run the gamut from Lester Maddox and J.B. Stoner to Larry Flynt, and crime reporting that followed the 1973 Alday family killings in South Georgia to the execution of ringleader Carl Isaacs 30 years later, and the 20-year saga of Palm Beach millionaire James V. Sullivan, who hired the murder of his estranged wife at her Buckhead condo by a gunman packing a pistol in a box of roses. Montgomery lives in a Decatur condo with his wife Linda and their Boston terrier.