When I woke up, the barrel of the machine gun
was wavering about six inches in front of my face. I studied the contours of the thing for several minutes, still foggy from sleep, before I realized with a start that I was no longer in the safety of my dreamscape. Machine guns are sort of like giraffe
s. You can see a giraffe on television a hundred times without giving it a second thought but if you wake up and find one in your yard, nibbling the leaves on your oak tree, it presents a far more compelling spectacle.
I had never seen a machine gun up close so I studied it with great fascination for several minutes before I faced the startling reality that it was there for my benefit. My gaze followed the barrel to the stock, then the strap to the shoulder that carried it. The shoulder was attached to an acne-burdened kid in uniform that couldn't have been more than nineteen years old. I mused for a moment how reckless it was to give such an instrument to someone still in the throes of turbulent adolescence and nearly shat myself when I noticed one of his bony fingers twitching near the trigger.
I decided that the safest course of action was to feign sleep but it was too late. The little soldier keyed a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist the moment he saw me stir. He hurriedly backed several feet away from me and more sternly focused the business end of his weapon, alternating its aim with jerky indecision between my head and torso.
The young man leveled the weapon with one hand and used the other to fumble the squelching radio from his belt. He spoke into the walkie-talkie with a rapidity and palpable tension that made me more uneasy, worse still he did so in a language I didn't fully understand.
I had arrived at the airport the previous evening in a frantic rush to avoid a late penalty on the rental car and to catch a flight that had already been cancelled. My itinerary was rearranged so many times that the night before my scheduled flight I was in an entirely different country, hundreds of kilometers from the airport at Frankfurt
. The confusion over the date of my departure necessitated a white-knuckled race down the treacherous, snow-slick mountain from Salzburg
and a pedal to the metal autobahn jaunt that threatened to rattle the bolts off of the crappy little rental car.
I reached Frankfurt am Main victorious, seven minutes to spare on the timely return of the rental car and more than an hour ahead of my flight to America. As I turned over the car keys to the pretty fraulein behind the counter I began to relax and as I did so I realized that I hadn't relieved my bladder since somewhere in Austria. I had to pee so badly I was crossing my toes and dragging my luggage with a pathetic, knee-knocking limp.
I knew enough German to decipher the sign that pointed the way to relief and could actually see the entrance to the men's room just up ahead on the concourse but the awkward weight of my luggage slowed my progress considerably. Severe abdominal discomfort made it obvious that I wouldn't reach the men's room in time unless I divested myself of the burden. I wasn't a seasoned traveler but I knew enough about the big bad world to worry about the theft of my belongings, so rather than leaving my precious satchels of dirty laundry lying around, I sought the help of strangers.
"Will you watch my suitcase, please, I need to make water!"
I had the little English/German travel dictionary handy but feared I wasn't making myself clear. The happy travelers I approached for assistance scowled at me and hurried away as though I was asking to purchase their daughter. I double checked the dictionary and added some volume and urgency to my plea.
"Please to keep my suitcase guarded while I make fast urine! Very important suitcase! Very big urine!"
As I increased my volume and articulation they only scowled more and moved away from me faster. What kind of country is this? Don't any of these people speak German? The need for release became no less insistent than the desire for my next breath and at the moment I thought I would pass out from pain, I heard the man behind me speaking in English.
"Oh, thank God, you're American aren't you?"
"American as apple pie...from Toledo, you?"
"I'm from Minneapolis and I've had to take a piss since Salzburg. Would you watch my suitcases for me while I run to the can?"
The man's face went ashen and he turned away without answering me and rushed off into the sea of people at twice his previous pace. What's up with that, I wondered? It wasn't like I was asking him to baby-sit a bomb or anything. It's my dirty underwear for chrissake!
The call of nature took on an urgency that superseded the worry over theft of my luggage so I dropped my bags where I stood, in the middle of the corridor and made a desperate move for the door marked "Herren." Pigeon toed and hunched over in pain like Ratso Rizzo near the end of Midnight Cowboy, I waddled toward the facilities and the eventual discharge that provided more joy than any orgasm ever could.
I completed my mission and returned to find my belongings precisely where I had left them. I knew for a fact that those bags would have been stolen within the first ten seconds in New York or Los Angeles. I softened my opinion of the people I had thought selfish and impertinent just a few moments before. Maybe larceny isn't such a big concern in Europe and the people who shunned me did so because they knew my things would be left unperturbed. They were so respectful in fact, that the flow of humanity through the airport concourse allowed my unaccompanied luggage a wide berth.
Had I been more attentive I might have noticed the massive signs every twenty meters or so that warned, in German and
English, not to leave your bags unattended and to immediately report any that are. If nature's call had been less insistent I might have heard the same announcement repeated on the public address system
over and over again. The signs were emphatic, block white letters as big as your head on a fire red background, quite specific in their warning to travelers to be ever vigilant against potential terrorists. If anyone should ask you to watch his luggage, an immediate report should be made to airport security
I noticed the signs as I exited the restroom but was so relieved to find my luggage intact that I didn't give it a second thought. I made my way to the gate just in time to see that my flight had been cancelled and my frantic race to the airport was for naught. The next scheduled flight wasn't for another seven hours, just long enough to be a drag but not quite enough time to find a hotel room and much needed sleep. I was exhausted from the harried trek from Austria and had sacrificed the previous night’s rest at a going away party, assuming that I could pass out on the airplane. Since there wasn't going to be an airplane any time soon I would have to find a place to crash in the busy airport.
It was just after Christmas and the airport was packed. I must have dragged those heavy suitcases full of dirty clothes for a half a mile or more through the mass of people, before finding an empty seat with enough padding for a makeshift bed. It was the gate that led to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the people gathered there sat on rugs spread out on the floor, leaving an entire row of seats vacant. I piled my bags in front of one of the padded chairs, stretched my legs across them for additional security and slept like a baby among the happy Africans.
Frankfurt is among the most important financial centers
of Europe and its airport serves as the pivotal hub for air travel onto and off of the continent. The airport is gargantuan, like a city within a city, complete with shops and gallery displays of fine art and German history. My first use of the airport coincided with the opening of the Berlin Wall
and most of the artwork on display was dedicated to a photographic retrospective of the city of Frankfurt after the war.
All of the photographs were dated within the first few months of 1946 and each was of a different neighborhood or district of Frankfurt. By the time I reached my resting-place at the gate to Addis Ababa I had seen hundreds of these historical photos, each of a different region of the city yet every picture was nearly identical. They were stark black and white images of block after block of total devastation, not a living creature or a single recognizable structure in sight.
My knowledge of World War II, much like most Americans, is couched in the cozy understanding that we were the good guys and they were the bad guys and we kicked their asses as God intended. The firebombing of Dresden and leveling of Frankfurt were simply the necessary byproduct of fighting the good fight. After I saw a couple of dozen photographs I was more sympathetic to the innocent citizenry that we destroyed by association. After viewing several hundred of these images, I was sick to my stomach and ashamed to be human.
As I watch the news today, almost twelve years later, and see the devastation that was the World Trade Center, I grasp the full impact of those photographs of Frankfurt for the first time. Regardless of the source of hostility, or the moral justification thereof, a demolished city is still a demolished city and I'm embarrassed to say that my heart never truly bled for Germany and her people until terrorists attacked America.
We are lucky to be Americans for a number of reasons but chief among these is that we've never had an entire city leveled in anger. Europe has them by the dozens. Don't even get me started on Japan. Atlanta was pretty much trashed during the Civil War but we did that one ourselves. The World Trade Center attack and the accompanying disruption of our peace of mind throws an entirely new light on those distant black and white images of Frankfurt and on the history books I was given that glossed over the carnage.
If the rest of the world doesn't seem appropriately shocked by the senseless devastation in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., it's only because they've been inured to smoldering rubble and watching people and things blow up. The war never really ended for large chunks of the rest of the globe, it just went by a different name. Their enhanced sensitivity to the threat of terrorism puts them in the ironic position of educating us on how to avoid leveled cities.
I can speak first hand to the fact that Germany has had the airport security thing covered for more than a decade.
A fellow noder thought that I should further elaborate on what happened with the kid and the machine gun. The fact is nothing much happened at all. I was supposed to write a newspaper piece on the fall of the Berlin Wall and I wrote the entire story with the machine gun held to my head. I was followed to my departing flight by a phalanx of six or seven similarly armed men and lived happily ever after.
The newspaper story can be found at: