by Valerie Bonham
Bier, hier, Bier hier, oder ich fall um, juchhe!
Bier, hier, Bier hier, oder ich fall um.
Beer, here, beer here, or I will fall down, hooray!
Beer, here, beer here, or I will fall down.
– German drinking song
The footsteps of Special Agent Barb Hoskins of the Bad Auerbach military intelligence unit echoed in the hallway as she passed open office doors. She was headed for the Army civilian personnel office on the second floor to collect routine information on West German nationals working on Ganzer Kaserne. The Army barracks sat on the outskirts of Bad Auerbach in the hilly Rhön, almost in northern Bavaria and mere kilometers from the fortified border of East Germany. The installation was one tip of USAREUR, the United States Army in Europe. Barb had discovered the seriousness of her job when she’d uncovered a minor spy, an Army courier siphoning information from the unclassified documents he’d carried. Just over thirty years ago, Nazi troops lived here. Now, in 1976, the Soviet Union was the enemy.
From behind her in the hall, a voice called Barb’s name. “Hoskins! Is that you?”
Barb turned and saw a woman in Army fatigues leaning out a door into the central hallway.
Barb stared at the face. An image of her Basic Training barracks seemed to form a backdrop. How long had it been? Six years? Seven?
The woman laughed. “Damn it to hell and back, it is you.”
With the laugh, memory dawned. “Francisco? Calley Francisco?” Barb was looking at one of her platoon-mates from Charlie Company, WAC Training Battalion.
“Yeah, man. What are you doing out in the middle of the boonies?”
“I’m assigned to the local M.I. office.”
“Intelligence? I thought you’d gone into admin.”
“I was a clerk-with-a-clearance, but that got old so I reenlisted for a school and cross-trained.”
“That explains the civvies. Nice threads.” Sergeant Calley Francisco took a step forward seeming to study Barb’s skirt and blouse.
“Yeah, we’re plain-clothes. So what are you doing? When did you arrive?”
“I’ve been here in the armpit of USAREUR since ’74. I’ve bounced around a few places. I wound up at the A.C.S. office about six months ago.”
Barb didn’t ask how Calley liked handing out dishes and blankets from the lending closet to Army families who’d just arrived. Army Community Services was necessary because of the soldiers’ frequent moves. Still, supervising a roster of soldiers’ wives who’d volunteered wasn’t a fast-burner’s career path.
“I’m a short-timer,” continued Calley, “a single-digit midget, going back to the Land of the Round Doorknob next week.”
“Less than ten days left? You’d have to be on the plane to get much shorter.”
“I’m so short I could parachute off a dime. Say, how about we go up to Kreuzberg this weekend. We need to have a party.”
Barb paused. Did she want to get mixed up with Calley? They had bumped heads in Basic when Barb, as platoon leader and therefore an acting-sergeant, had counseled her platoon mate. Calley had told Barb to buzz off. They were both privates and Barb was only an acting-jack, a pretend sergeant. Barb had told Calley that if she had a problem with Barb’s position to tell it to the platoon sergeant. Despite this history, in a world of no old friends, finding a platoon-mate was something to celebrate. “What’s Kreuzberg?” Barb asked.
“You’ve never been to the monastery? Man, you don’t know what you’re missing. The monks up there brew a mean mug of suds.
“Beer?” said Barb. Beer in Germany was a religion, but she hadn’t connected it with capital-R religion.
“This isn’t beer, it’s nectar. The gods drink this beer.”
Barb doubted that, but visiting the monastery sounded like a good way to burn up an off-duty day.
“So, Saturday?” Barb opened her notebook, tore out a piece of paper, and wrote her office phone number on it. “I need to get going, but call the office and we’ll arrange a meeting.”
“You got wheels?” asked Calley. “I shipped my car already.”
“I have a car. It’s slow, but it’s a car.”
“Great. See you then.”
Upstairs, with Lisette Lenz, the German clerk in the Civilian Personnel Office, Barb went through their drill. Lisette dictated specifics from the file cards and Barb transcribed it all into her notebook.
This information check came sooner than usual after the last routine collection. In June at a local fest, while stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel with Lisette, and as an oompah band played a little ditty called “Beer Here!,” Barb had seen a man at a table in the beer garden make what looked like a hand-off of a packet. Barb had recognized the man as an L.N. employee, a local national. He was a courier who’d come into the C.P.O. on one of her earlier visits.
Because of Barb’s suspicion about what she’d seen at the carnival, she’d arranged a search of the courier’s work locker. Her search had netted a stash of information the man was selling to the Soviets and their East German lap dogs. It was only bits and pieces of unclassified information, but it filled in blanks in the American Army’s work structure. To try to close this barn door, Barb’s headquarters wanted other L.N.s double-checked.
So here Barb was, back with Lisette, going through the L.N. employee file cards and copying information to compare against records at the city residence registry office. Counterintelligence work wasn’t all jazzy midnight meetings in foggy cities. From Barb’s perspective, it never was.
Lisette finished dictating, flipped the last card down, and slid the long, shallow file tray back into the metal cabinet.
“Lisette, what do you know about Kreuzberg?”
Lisette’s face took on a thoughtful cast. “Kreuzberg? It is a monastery in the Rhön, you know with monks, and there are nice rambles through the woods to get there. Many people enjoy the beer, and the monks breed the Bernhardiner, the Saint Bernard dogs, I think for guarding. Are you going there?”
“I bumped into someone I knew from years ago, and she suggested a trip up there. I’m wondering what there is to do besides drink beer. That’s pretty much all she mentioned.”
“It is a good walk from the town of Wildflecken.” Lisette paused. “I could show you the way.”
Barb considered for a moment. Calley hadn’t talked about anyone else coming along so the outing would be just the two of them. Having Lisette with them could keep the experience from turning into Barb being support staff for Calley’s final drunken blowout. “That sounds great. It’s this Saturday. Are you free?”
“Oh, yes. I am just home with my father and he likes to tell me to go out and not spend all my life living with an old man.” She smiled. “He is not so old.”
“It’s a date,” said Barb.
Lisette sat up straighter and her eyes widened. “We are dating?”
“No, not that kind of date. It’s just something you say when you’ve arranged to meet with someone.”
Lisette laughed. “For me, a new American colloquialism.”
When Barb left, she went out the back way and didn’t pass Calley’s door. She told herself she had to get back to the office ASAP to type up the information.
On Saturday, Barb left early from her room over the office and picked up Calley from her barracks.
“Man, is it hot out. Feels like Alabama. You remember that?”
“Yeah,” said Barb. Not one of her favorite memories. While marching, Calley wouldn’t keep up with the group so the platoon sergeant usually detailed Barb to stay with her.
As for this August day’s heat, the newspaper reported that this summer was the hottest one Europe had experienced as far back as the old people could remember. Barb hoped that the reward of beer at the end of this march would be enough motivation to keep Calley moving.
At nine o’clock, Barb and Calley arrived at a public parking lot at the base of the hill on which the monastery sat.
“You are here,” Lisette said when she spotted them. “We will have an invigorating walk that will improve our digestions and increase our metabolisms.”
As Lisette hefted a small backpack, Calley glanced at Barb. Barb interpreted the look as, “What the hell?”
Barb thought from the way Lisette had dressed that she didn’t consider the hike to be just a Saturday stroll. With her red and white checked shirt, Lisette wore what looked like below-the-knee riding pants. Instead of everyday shoes, Lisette had thick socks and brown leather lace-up ankle-boots. She carried what looked like a wooden cane, but not a plain one. Up and down the shaft, colorful inch-high medallions of different shapes covered the cane. One looked like a tiny antlered deer head with teensy nails holding it on.
“What is that?” Barb gestured at the cane.
“This?” Lisette held out her walking stick. “It is a Spazierstock.”
Calley didn’t quite suppress a snort. “A shpatzer-stock?” she mispronounced. “It looks like an old people’s cane. What are all those things on it?”
“These are souvenir, how do you say, medals?” said Lisette. “You buy each one from the places you visit and put them on the stick. My grandfather and I collect them.”
“That’s a lot of walking,” said Calley.
To Barb’s ears, the comment didn’t sound complimentary.
The three women set off along one of the wooded paths, with Lisette in her hiking gear, and Barb and Calley in jeans, t-shirts and sports shoes. Barb wore a small day-pack stocked with cash, her military I.D. card, a few self-sticking bandages, and a Thermos of cold water. Calley appeared to have only her wallet in her back pocket.
The walk through the woods was all Barb had hoped it wouldn’t be. The monastery sat nearly on the summit of the hill. Calley walked up hills no better than she’d marched in Alabama.
“I’m supposed to be having fun, not killing myself walking up a mountain when there’s a road to drive up.”
“It is a good walk for you,” said Lisette from her position about fifteen steps ahead of Calley.
The woods were shady, but the path was rough from tree roots and the odd rock poking out. Lisette used her Spazierstock well and Barb wished she, too, had a walking stick to help propel her up the hill. Lisette reached the end of the trail before they did and stood studying a large map painted on a signboard. The map depicted the area as if it was 3-D, with arrowed boxes pointing to landmarks.
Calley plopped onto a decorative boulder near the sign. “It’s like the Bataan death march.” Her words came out in short puffs between gasps.
Ten minutes later, the three women made their way to the beer garden.
“This is more like it,” said Calley.
Barb agreed. The walk had sharpened her appetite. Even the aroma of beer made her mouth water.
At the food kiosk they ordered beer, wurst and fries. The beer astonished Barb, although not the drink itself. This beer came in quart mugs of heavy, gray ceramic with fist-sized handles. Carrying a full one was like hoisting a five-pound bag of flour one-handed.
Grasping her mug in her right hand and balancing the small paperboard plate with her hard roll, sausage, and fries in the other, Barb stepped carefully. The day-pack on her back counterbalanced the beer mug held in front of her. She startled when someone behind her touched her arm, pushing her aside. Barb’s beer spilled and splatted in the dust. Barb gave Lisette a look thinking she’d say something, but Lisette kept walking. Barb looked around and saw a brown-robed figure striding away. Did monks have special social privileges?
The women sat down at an empty picnic table and Calley plunked her mug and plate down in the middle of the space. She raised the mug and drank for a good ten seconds. She set the mug down with a thump. “Oh, that was what I was waiting for.”
Barb took enough beer in her mouth to taste it. The liquid wasn’t as bitter as the bottled stuff kept for visitors in the refrigerator at her office, and her tongue told her this beer contained more alcohol than American brands.
While Barb sampled her drink, and found that this beer was still just beer and not the ambrosia promised by Calley, Lisette had propped her Spazierstock against the end of the table, bitten off a chunk of the brown-speckled grilled bratwurst, chewed, and washed it down with a draught of beer to rival Calley’s.
Barb knew Calley could keep up with the guys when it came to quaffing suds, as Calley had described her beer-drinking. Barb wondered if Lisette couldn’t give Calley a run for her money. Sweet Lisette, who wouldn’t speak much above a whisper in the civilian personnel office, could knock back a liter of beer.
Barb had sipped hers down by about a quarter by the time the beer garden had filled up. For her, it was enough to have beer’s usual effect. “Which way are the bathrooms?” asked Barb. Her companions had already each made the trip.
“The toilets are over there,” said Lisette, pointing towards the permanent structure of the monastery, away from the tented food concession.
Barb thought they’d have been closer to the picnic area, but “when in Rome …”
On her way back from the facilities, labeled with the unambiguous designation of “Toiletten,” Barb regarded the Saint Bernards. They were beautiful creatures, but didn’t appear to be the caring rescuers that would bear brandy to injured human climbers on snow-covered Alps. These were guard dogs. Two of the five animals in the closest pen raised a clamor at the clusters of tourists moving past them, standing on their hind legs with their forepaws clenching the mesh of their enclosure. The dogs looked to be at least six feet tall when upright. Just in front of the crowd admiring the dogs, Barb stopped to get a better look at them. Without warning, she was flung against the dogs’ cage. Her fingers grasped at the sturdy wire. She slid. Her face scraped against the thick strands.
The dogs reacted as if Barb had attacked. They bayed, throwing themselves at her, making the thick mesh bow out. Saliva spattered Barb’s arm.
Hands grabbed at Barb, pulling her away from the fencing, settling her onto the dirt path. Over the din of the dogs’ barking, Barb heard shouting.
“Ach! What are you doing? Do you not see the signs to keep back from the dogs?”
Two monks came at Barb. One of them, the man who’d moved her out of his way, pushed away the crowd.
“Someone pushed me,” Barb snapped in German.
“Nein. I doubt that. You should not be stupid around these dogs,” the monk berated her. “Get away from them. Come.” He leant down and pulled on Barb’s arm.
“Just a minute. I can’t move like this.” Barb jerked her arm while trying to stand. The man pulled at her again. “Give it a rest, bub,” Barb said in English, not knowing the slang for the phrase, or how to translate “bub.”
“American,” said the monk and let go. She thumped onto the ground. “You drink too much.”
“And you have dangerous animals without enough protection,” said Barb in German.
The monk straightened his face like that of a judge about to rule a witness in contempt of court. “You must leave.”
“Can I get up first?” Barb tried glaring, but had to squint up into the sunshine.
The monk stepped back, and Barb noticed the circled crowd. Which one had shoved her? Now that she wasn’t scrambling to get away from monster dogs acting as if millennia of domestication had never happened, she could feel the hands on her back punching her forwards. Who did that?
As Barb approached the beer garden on the way to rejoin her friends, the monk followed. Calley and Lisette looked up, surprise crossing their faces.
“Was ist passiert? What happened?” Lisette stood, looking between Barb and the monk and almost knocking over the picnic bench where she’d been sitting.
“You Americans must leave,” the monk said in English. “Your friend made you not welcome.”
Lisette’s chin went up and Barb again saw this new person, the one who was different than the timid one she knew from the civilian personnel office. “Ich bin Deutsche. I am German,” she said.
“Don’t bother, Lisette. He’s convinced I’m a troublemaker.” Barb glanced at the monk. He reminded her of a medieval engraving in a textbook. Barb picked up her day-pack, pushing her arms through the straps. Bundling the trash from her meal into the small paper dish that had held her food, she grabbed her beer mug to take it back to claim her deposit.
Lisette and Calley followed her lead, clearing the table. Lisette took her mug back to the kiosk, but Calley kept hers, forfeiting the fee of five D-Marks. The two caught up to Barb who was already at the head of the footpath back through the woods.
“What the hell happened? Calley trotted to keep up with Barb. “You went to the john and came back beat up.”
“Who is John? Did you meet someone here?”
Calley ignored Lisette. “What the hell happened, man?”
“I don’t know,” said Barb. “One minute I was looking at those huge dogs, and the next I was on the ground with the monsters trying to eat me through their cage. Those things should be behind bars, like in a zoo. Then Brother Torquemada shows up, accusing me of injuring his precious dogs.”
“But how’d you fall? Were you running?” Calley trotted along to Barb’s left, the liter mug swinging by her side.
“Did this John-person do something?” Lisette was easily keeping pace on Barb’s right, her walking stick pumping away.
“There is no John-person, Lisette,” said Barb. “John’s a colloquialism for a toilet.”
“Ah. I understand.”
“Coke-a-lism?” asked Calley. “Now we’re doing economics?”
Barb stopped. “Enough with the cross-talk,” she said, holding up her hands. “I was standing by the dogs. Someone pushed me into them. I don’t know who. I don’t know why.”
“Maybe it was a person trying to get past you,” said Lisette. “A big man who did not know how strong he is?”
“I didn’t see any big man,” said Barb. “There was just a crowd of people. Right now I’m angry and I want to go home.” She said this as if her room above the office was a place of refuge, which, given all the comings and goings of her co-workers, was unlikely.
The women walked for thirty minutes marching steadily downhill. Barb was in the lead. Calley could come along or not. Her choice. They passed one couple, then another, both trudging up the path to the monastery. Barb paused at each fork where the path diverged, waiting for Lisette to point the way. Farther on, two men approached. Barb, Calley and Lisette moved to the right to let them pass.
The men stopped and blocked the path. One was tall and bearded, carrying a jacket over his shoulder. The shorter man also held a jacket in his hand. Unlike the usually-polite West Germans, neither gave any kind of greeting.
Barb had thought the place was safe. Although she’d seen signs about not leaving things in cars because of thieves, she’d seen nothing about muggers.
Lisette returned Barb’s gaze with a questioning look. Barb stopped and Calley bumped into her. Barb pitched forward, but caught herself, and pushed back against Calley.
“Hey,” said Calley. “Why’d you stop?”
Before Barb could speak, the first man said, “Sie blöde Frau.” You stupid woman.
Were these men friends of Lisette’s? Well, not friends, but people Lisette knew? Lisette looked to Calley. Not Lisette’s friends.
“Who are these guys?” asked Calley. “What’s he saying?”
The men looked drunk. This confused Barb. If they’d been drinking at the monastery they’d be walking down the hill, not up. “Let’s just scoot over,” Barb said in English. “Looks like their party started early.”
The women stepped to the right-hand side of the path in a single-file.
“Do not scoot,” said the taller man. His English was accented. “You come to our country and disturb.”
“Bitte?” asked Barb, using the standard construction of “Please?” instead of demanding “What?”
Calley interrupted with, “Another ‘Rad who doesn’t like that we put our asses on the line for him.”
“Can it, Calley,” Barb said. She could all but feel Lisette bristle. Did Germans know that one of their nicknames was a shortened “Comrade?” Had this guy met Calley in a bar somewhere and got into it?
“It is too bad for the wire fence,” said the man. “The dogs should have had a fine lunch.”
Barb’s hand went to her face. The scrape still stung. She felt someone move behind her.
“You pushed my friend?” It was Calley. She sounded ready to break a beer bottle on a table and cut the man.
“Calley, no,” said Barb.
“Shut up, you other stupid woman. You sit in the office for years and can not speak enough German to talk. How can you live in a place with no learning to speak?” The man stepped forward. “Ach, Amerikaner. You come here and cause trouble. Germany is in two, the Kapitalisten break it and you help them. You make wars and think no one can stop you.”
Barb heard an intake of breath, then a low voice. Lisette’s.
“He is that courier. But now with a beard.”
Barb stared at the man’s face beneath the hair. Roland Schrimpf. The man she’d seen passing the package at the fest using his motorcycle jacket as a cover. Going by the leather jackets the men carried, they’d probably ridden ‘cycles from the monastery down to the parking lot.
This was the man whose locker she’d searched while he was out working. She’d found items such as community telephone books and other unclassified information useful to any enemy for filling in the gaps of military unit structure, organization, and activities. Barb wished that the Army could have jailed him, but the American military had no criminal jurisdiction over local national employees, and selling unclassified American information wasn’t against West German law. The man was fired because of the report she’d written, but it was Lisette’s supervisor, a management employee relations specialist from the personnel office, who had told him he was out of a job. She’d only seen Schrimpf in passing. How could he know her?
Barb’s gaze flickered over his friend. Now that she had a context, the military community’s motor pool, his identity popped up. He’d been sitting on the couch where the vehicle drivers waited for dispatch instructions. He saw her that day. These men hadn’t spotted one of her friends, they’d spotted her.
Schrimpf’s fists bunched. “Leave my country,” he said in a drunken slur.
Barb saw him inhale and his jaw went down. Behind him, his friend mimicked the bullish posture. She inclined her head towards Lisette, while still watching the men. In a low voice, Barb asked, “Can we run?”
“We are three,” said Lisette, “but the trees and rocks …”
Barb shifted her day-pack and glanced to the left to gauge an exit route. It didn’t look good. She moved her foot so that it was braced against a tree root in the path. The area to the right wasn’t any better than left. “Calley?”
“What? What’s going on?”
“Just run, Calley.”
“From those bozos? It’s not like they’re Hell’s Angels or something.”
Barb didn’t have time to argue. Schrimpf and his friend blundered towards them. “Go!”
Barb pushed off from the tree root, jumping left and intending to run between a bush and the trunk of a tree. The uneven ground made her feet slide. Careful. No sprained ankles.
Barb heard an “oof.” She glanced back. Schrimpf had chased after her, but Calley hadn’t run. She’d tackled him. She never listened. Barb turned back. Through the trees she saw red and white flashing. Lisette’s shirt? Schrimpf was smacking at Calley, who had curled herself around his leg. Her beer mug lay on the ground. Barb ran forward, picked it up and slammed it down on Schrimpf, aiming for anything. She got his shoulder and he yelled. He raised his other leg and kicked at Calley’s head making her cry out. Barb swung sidearm and cracked Schrimpf in the head. He went limp.
“Calley, let go of him.” She dropped the beer mug and pulled at her friend. “Can you get up? We need to find Lisette.” She kept glancing at Schrimpf, waiting for him to move. Unless she’d killed him, he’d be up in a minute or two.
Calley looked at him. “Bastard,” she said, and pushed herself up from the ground.
Barb brushed her hair off her face and looked for Lisette. She saw nothing but the woods. After hearing a distant shout, she picked up the undamaged beer mug and ran towards the yell, unsure of what she’d do once she got there, but at least she had a weapon. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Calley jogging after her. Schrimpf had rolled over, but still lay on the ground.
Soon, Barb came upon Lisette and the Army driver. He held her by the shirt and punched at her. Lisette bucked and dodged while slapping at him. His one-armed jabs looked as if they made only glancing blows, but that was small comfort. Barb hefted the mug, but couldn’t see where she could hit just the man and not get Lisette, too. The man hadn’t seen her.
Lisette’s cane lay on the ground. Barb dropped the mug and picked up the cane. She grasped it in two hands as if it were a quarter-staff and, with her left hand guiding the sharp end, she jabbed the man’s back. The medallions on the shaft scraped her hand so she stopped pushing too soon. Still, the man flinched and let go. Lisette fell to the ground with the sudden release.
The man turned towards Barb. She held the cane up in front of her, the pointed metal ferrule aimed at his eyes. He glared at her. His gaze shifted as if he saw something over her shoulder. Taking advantage, Barb flipped the cane so she could grab its lower end where there were no medallions and swung the cane like a baseball bat. She struck the man in the shoulder. He stumbled, caught himself so he didn’t fall, but then screamed. He pulled up his leg and bent to hold his foot. He scrabbled around, turned and limped off through the trees.
Barb stopped, confused because she hadn’t hit him again and she hadn’t hit his foot. She stared after him. What happened? Movement on the ground caught her eye. She looked down. Lisette held the beer mug. Her shirt had been torn, her hair went every which way, and she breathed as if she needed to catch every last oxygen molecule.
“Got him,” Lisette gasped.
Calley arrived. “What? He’s gone?”
Barb nodded, breathing too deeply to speak.
The sound of small branches crackling made Barb turn. Schrimpf staggered towards them. Barb stepped out from behind Calley, holding the cane across her body with two hands. Movement to her left told her that Lisette was next to her and she glanced over to see her friend brandishing Calley’s beer mug. Calley stepped forward.
Roland Schrimpf stopped. He stood for a moment glaring at the women. His shoulders slumped. He turned and lurched down the path in the direction of the parking lot at Wildflecken.
“Verdammt! Damn it.” said Lisette. “That is our way.”
With Schrimpf gone, Barb and Calley collapsed onto the ground, joining Lisette.
After a short time, they heard the sound of one motorcycle revving. The whine increased and was joined by another. Both faded into the distance.
Barb leaned her elbows on her knees. “I guess it’s safe to go find the car.”
“What shall we do about this attack?” asked Lisette.
Calley made a disgusted sound and said, “We’d never catch them now.”
Barb stared at her. “You aren’t thinking of chasing them, are you?”
“Why not? Three to two,” said Calley. “And we have weapons.”
“No need,” said Barb. “I’m writing up a report and notifying the Polizei.”
“That’s a cop-out. Who were those guys, anyhow?” said Calley. “We can’t do anything about ‘Rad.”
“You didn’t recognize them?” Barb asked. “The guy who was yelling at us was a courier at Ganzer. He probably picked up distribution and other internal mail from your office. The other guy’s still working there.”
“Those bastards knew us? It was personal?” asked Calley. “We’re not just gonna take it, are we? We can at least try to catch them.”
“We don’t have to. It doesn’t matter,” Barb said.
“The hell it doesn’t.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Barb said.
“Why the hell not?” Calley had steel in her voice and beer in her veins.
The steel in Barb’s voice matched Calley’s and she nodded at Lisette, the C.P.O. clerk with a file cabinet full of information. “We know where they live.”
Valerie Bonham, a fiction writer who is a former News and Commentary editor for Home Education Magazine, enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps the day after her 18th birthday. Her father was a 30-year Air Force retiree, her mother was a WAC who served in China during WWII, her brother a sailor, her sister a WAF, her husband a command sergeant major, and her son an Apache crew chief in Desert Storm. By the time her husband retired from federal service, she had lived outside the United States for over half her life, and at the age of 50 could list 50 changes of residence. Since then, she hasn’t even moved the furniture.