I paused at one of the Vezelay’s walls as the sky was breaking up. Rays of sun skipped across Burgundian vineyards and on distant hills and the agricultural fields of corn and hay on the plains below. The scene reminded me of a Thomas Hart Benton painting, the clumps of trees and winding roads distinct but beautifully surreal. A slight, warm breeze blew up over the wall, bringing the scents of soil and cut grass. I breathed deeply and took a minute, listening to the crowd chatter by behind me, glad to be free of the need to interpret or be interpreted to.
Looking off the bluff and down the rows of vines also took me back to my first day in the vineyard in Trier in November 1985. That morning, I’d walked to the Avelsbach vineyard, a holding of the Trier Cathedral, from my little room. Other vineyard workers stood in the small hof and along the road that wound through the vineyard and up to an army testing range. The road was a sturdy, thick and wide concrete strip named Panzerstrasse. It was grape harvest season and we would cut the grapes from the vines in the steepest part of the vineyard above the road. Shyly, I got in line with the other workers. I could speak very little German and decided to mimic what the other workers did. One of the full-time staff walked up the line of people while he handed out shears from a bucket.
Snippers in hand, I filed with the other workers past the vineyard manager, Eduard Meyer, who smiled at me. He gently pulled me from the line and asked if I was the new American. He could speak no English and I answered in my broken German. In hindsight, I understand he asked if I was the American he was supposed to train. He took me aside and showed me how to cut the grapes from the vine and watch out for my fingers. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and sliced through it with one side of the shears. He held up his index finger and clamped the shears with a sudden move and then drew the shears away from his hand quickly. “Sehen Sie? Pop. Finger weg.”
For the next two weeks, I climbed that hill, harvesting grapes into a plastic bucket and then dumping it into large tuns the full-timers carried on the backs and emptied into a trailer on the Panzerstrasse. We started in the dark dewy mornings when it was cold and the sun was rising. Fog filled the Avelertal above the small creek, the Avelsbach, below. The vines emerged from the mist below and disappeared above, making it seem as if the hill had no beginning or end. I worked up the shale slope until I reached the end of a row, and then stumbled down to start at the bottom again. At first, I struggled. My labor in the liquor warehouse hadn’t prepared me for the backbreaking work of the grape harvest. Then, I’d spent a month and a half riding on trains. The backpack helped keep my back and arms in some kind of shape. But in those first days of the harvest, I often found myself sweating in the cold mornings and sopped on sunny afternoons. My heart raced and I fought to catch my breath.
I was among the slowest workers. One would think clipping bunches of grapes from vines would be easy. But it took skill and more than once I sliced my fingertips with the shears. I started to tape my fingers every day to protect them from my own bumbling. Over time, I became better at the job. I sheared my fingers less. I gained the heart and leg strength to work the slopes. I even sometimes donned the large tuns and shuttled grapes from the other workers to the trailers below.
That first day I was the source of fun for the other workers. I had no idea at the time the Germans and occupying French forces operated a small-arms and artillery testing range on the hilltop above the vineyards and behind a stand of heavy woods. At the first volley late in the morning, I dropped to the ground under the vines and covered my head. My fellow workers laughed. I looked up at their smiling faces and thought I was the butt of some joke. They helped me up from slate and leaves. “Sie haben auf uns schissen,” I said, which roused another round of laughter, this one heartier than the first. An English woman named Carmel, who would later become a good friend, took me aside and told me that I’d said, “They shit on us.” I was mortified. I’d been self-conscious to begin with. I explained to her I meant to say, “They are shooting at us.” She laughed and told me the German and French armies did joint training exercises and arms testing, as well as tank maneuvers at the top of the hill. Thus, she said, “Panzerstrasse. Get it? A street for tanks—panzers, you know. Real tanks.”
Being an American, I wasn’t used to having the military invade daily life. We don’t have a palpable feeling for the size of the United States military. It’s hidden away in deserts, overseas bases, and giant, remote military reservations. You might understand a military presence if you lived near military instillation, but we don’t ever see soldiers training in the streets. My father was a coastguardsman. He did his reserve weekends at a tiny compound on the Missouri River at Leavenworth. Even near the fort in Leavenworth, I didn’t get the sense of a military being separated as it was from the rest of town by heavy fencing. Behind the fences, the Army did its work out of sight of ordinary Americans. In the following year in Germany, I saw more military—tanks, soldiers, planes and jet fighters—than I had my whole life previous or since.