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Chance meeting, life-long friendship

The youth hostel in Ruedesheim stood about a mile from the train station. To get there, we had to hike the steep slopes of the vineyard. From the front piazza in front of the hostel, neat rows of vines spanned the distance from the hostel to the Rhein River below. We could see across the river, past Bingen and into the Pflaz.

ruedesheimThe events of the evening are hazy after all these years, and they weren’t very clear back when they happened. Larry and I stepped off the train in the late afternoon. The summer days in those parts last a long time—it’s well toward 10 p.m. before the last light of the day disappears. Larry and I had it in our minds that we would stay in the hostel. The next day, we would spend part of our time hunting for a job for me at one of the numerous wineries that dot the region between Assmanshausen and Oestrich-Winkel.

These days, I was scouting around German wine-growing areas looking for an internship or apprentice’s position. The idea was that I would set myself up to go to the wine school at Geisenheim, the next village east of Ruedesheim. Nothing was sure, however. I was very uncertain of myself and I depended on Larry to get me started. In the end, he made me knock on those doors and quote the German he gave me to try to get my foot in the door. He would wait for me outside. Inevitably, I was turned away and we continued on our frenzied train tour of Germany until we decided to stop and try again.

Once we got off the train, we sought out a place where we could get some cheap eats. Ruedesheim’s train station stood in an industrial part of town, just steps away from the famous Ansbach Uralt brandy distillery. We walked up past the distillery and branched off into the old town, where narrow streets wound between plaster-and-timber houses and shops.

I was still fresh from my Midwestern city. Ruedesheim, just like all the small towns I’d been in the previous ten days, had the atmosphere and feeling of an alien planet. I was still astounded to stride down roads Romans built, and if not them, then the people who took up in their place. Everything seemed unbelievably old. We came across a house where the owners in the past had carved 1776 in the door lintel. I stopped for a second on the flagstones to contemplate what that meant for me.

We bought a bratwurst at a stand somewhere in the middle of town. I was hungry. I ate that bratwurst with spicy mustard in about two bites. It felt good going down but didn’t even approach the ache I had in my insides. We hunted around for a grocery, where we could buy some tomatoes and cheese. I picked up a couple of half-pints of beer for the evening and stuffed them in my backpack.

The evening was warm and I was sweating as we climbed the slope to the hostel, which seemed at that moment unimaginably distant from town. At the hostel, we found the warden surly and uncommunicative. He was a large man stuffed into a collared shirt. He eyes were slits in his pudgy red face. He seemed to be in a constant huff, irritated by the people he was supposed to be serving. He gave us each a body-length bag made out of a sheet, a sort of very light sleeping bag, and showed us down the hall to a room full of bunk beds.

There were a few guys sitting on their bunks, smoking and talking. By the time we’d settled in, the sun had set. Some others came in after us and it didn’t take long for some of us to arrange an expedition into town.

With confidence in our new companions, we strode out of the hostel. The warden shouted after us in German. Larry said that the warden would close the doors at 10 p.m. and that we oughtn’t look to get back in after that.

I made the acquaintance of a couple of Australians who were driving around the world. They had worked and saved for over a year to get the $10,000 Australian that they would need for their trip. They had landed on the West Coast of the United States and bought a car in San Francisco. They drove across the states, seeing where the road and the wind took them. They wound up in New York, where they sold the car and headed off for Europe. They now had a new used car and a road map. They wound up at the hostel as they headed east across the continent.

I had started drinking when I unpacked my bag in the hostel. The beer warmed my insides and lightened my mood. The fatigue of traveling and walking that day set on me. I almost didn’t go with the group of guys headed down to town. But after a few breezy steps down through the grapevines, I began to feel better, lighter. As we tromped toward town, I had a good conversation with one of the Australians, who I was coming to like a great deal.

Such acquaintances come easily to travelers. The Australian and I talked about where we’d been. I was much more interested in his story than mine. Imagine! I thought, just taking off and driving around the world! I didn’t take into consideration my own situation. I had, on a whim, sold all my possessions—and those I didn’t sell, I set out with the trash—and packed my whole life into a backpack. I was gambling that I could find a job in a winery or vineyard and work toward my dream of owning a vineyard on my own.

The group of us, about six, wound up in a bar. There was a Scot who we could barely understand. Larry and I were the two Americans, then there were the two Australians. There was another American, who’d obviously been drinking most of the day. We rattled around the old town, wandering from pub to pub. I was drinking away my precious funds, but, what the hell? I was only going to do this once. I think we stopped at a restaurant and got something to eat before we hit the next bar.

At some point, someone looked at his watch. We had just twenty minutes to make it back to the hostel. We gulped the last of our beers. We clattered out of the place and immediately made for the hostel. We were all sort of lost. But we knew that we could hike through the aisles of vines if we couldn’t find the winding road to the hostel.

Not all of us were drunk, but I was and so was the Scot. We dragged each other up the hill. Somehow my conversation with the Australians continued. We were all afraid we were locked out of the hostel.

We made it in about ten minutes after the warden had locked the door. The hostel was dark, the only light coming from the big living room-style lobby. We stood in a hush, one of us had to ring the bell. Without warning, the pudgy warden swung the door open and layered us with scolds. After a round of rough language, he let us in and cautioned us to be quiet.

The room where we had our things was dark. A few people in the beds around the room looked up at Larry and me and the Australians when we came in. With whispers, we climbed into our bunks. I passed out just after I laid my head down.

The next morning, we all ate the breakfast the hosteller and his wife set out for us. Goodbyes went around the room. But there was something about one of the Australians named Grahame that kept me from treating that farewell as the end. Maybe it was our conversation or some common connection that we found the night before. I know that he had been more moderate than I had. His eyes were clear and bright as we set about packing our things and getting ready to hit the road again.

Grahame and I exchanged addresses, his in Australia and mine at a house in the little town of Wawern, where I had met and befriended a couple that Larry knew. I was going to be on the road a while, and Grahame and his friend still had more to see in Germany before they headed east. We agreed to meet in two weeks at the youth hostel in the old town in Luxemburg. We set a time. If we saw each other there, then it would be good for us. If something or other came up for either one of us, then we would have to communicate through the mails.

Two weeks later, I arrived at the hostel in Luxemburg. I don’t remember much of that night, only that I found Grahame to my surprise. We talked for a long time outside the hostel. I remember Grahame’s face and the dark of night. In the background were the dimly lit streets of the old town. I can’t even remember if I stayed at the youth hostel or was off again on a night train—my tramp card bought me unlimited travel on the trains—to sleep in a compartment as the train headed for a distant city. (I had taken night trains to far-away cities to have a place to sleep.)

I settled into a small room in the ancient city of Trier a couple of weeks later. I was lucky enough to find an internship at a famous winery whose administration was willing to take on an ambitious, if misguided American. Not knowing anyone in the city, I spent long hours alone. I wrote letters, lots of them. I sent Grahame a missive, and once he returned to Sydney, wrote me back.

We have been writing each other now for 30 years. We have come to know each other by mail. We hatched a plan once to write a screenplay through the post and got quite a long way with it before we lost interest. But our connection never waned. At various times when he’s come to the states, we have gone backpacking in central Missouri and camping in the mountains west of Laramie. I have shown him my town.

Over the years, he went to college and earned himself a master’s in counselling. He works now as a psychologist in a town not far from Sydney. He has come to the states most recently to seminars and conferences for psychologists. When he does, I try to meet him. After all, he comes 10,000 miles, I can make the last couple of hundred.

He was in Dallas last week. Initially, we were going to meet in Little Rock, where he wanted to tour the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library. He tries to visit the presidential libraries whenever he comes to the states, as one of his studies is the office of the American president. Little Rock is about a seven-hour drive for me.

Due to circumstances, I couldn’t meet him as I have in Cleveland or St. Louis in the past. We made our visit over the phone. It was good to talk to him. After our conversations, I sat back and tried to remember, as I always do, how I met this incredible personality.

I wasn’t able to see him this time but will next time. If there is not a next time, we will visit him in Australia. But even if that doesn’t happen, I always get to think of a night given over to drunken reverie in a German town and a chance meeting that has given over to lifelong friendship.

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