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Earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes

I’d hiked up steep roads through the vineyards in Wawern many times over the last thirty-five years. The path had always renewed my spirit and given me a new view of the world. I wanted to show my friends an integral part of my life, a scene that renewed my vision and gave me new perspective. Udo Bethke had come to little Wawern from Reutlingen, leaving his art and architectural workshop for a few days. Eddy Harris, the American writer who now lives in France, joined us.

They had arrived the day before—Udo in the afternoon, and Eddy later that evening. I’d marked out some activities for us for the days they were staying with Josef and Marlies Frick, the friends whom I was staying with. It was a dicey gambit for me. What would I do if Eddy and Udo didn’t get along? What if they did or said something that put they at odds with the Fricks? I worried most that three strapping men would put too much stress on the Fricks, who were in their 80s.

I needn’t have worried. From the beginning, Udo and the Fricks got on like gangbusters. They also found Eddy fascinating, though Eddy could speak no German and the Fricks no English. We’d spent Sunday evening engaged in rapt conversation that wound around who my friends were, what they did, and what they expected in their lives. We talked about the Fricks background, their young lives, and the war years.

That morning, we sat at coffee and brötchen and Marlies’ wonderful hand-made jellies and jams. I was still woozy from the 26 hours I’d spent underway to Wawern. Eddy, too, was tired from his long trip across France on buses and trains. I’d planned a few things for my friends for the next days that would show them what I’d been talking about for so long. I’d told the Fricks of our plans. My goal was to make sure the men saw some new sights but not use the Fricks’ home merely as a base for our journeys.

After our coffee cups were empty and we had sat at discussion for another couple of hours, Eddy, Udo, and I took off on a hike through the village and up through the vineyards. I wanted to show them the grand scenery from the top of the substantial hill whose face people had planted in vines since Roman times.

I’d hiked those trails many times over the last 35 years. Back when I was first in Germany, I spent many evenings and late nights with my friend Joachim, the Fricks’s son, on the flanks of that long hill above what used to be a bend in the Saar River. We were young then, before family troubles, rocky marriages, and, finally, brain cancer visited our relationship.

We’d take off from the winery in the old monastery and walk up to the end of the village. There, we took the vineyard road up through the dark. Below us, the village slept, it’s streets empty. Not a car passed. We heard only the yawning breeze in the forests bordering the vineyard, our ever-quickening breaths, and our footsteps that shifted from footfalls to crunching as we moved over the pavement onto the rocky trail.

Once at the top of the vineyard, we stared off into the distance. The only lights anywhere were of the village on one end of the valley and the electrical power distribution station at the other. Stars beamed above us. We smoked and talked of whatever we happened to be going through at the time. The scene was sublime, the profiles of vines and trellises falling down to the village.

As we walked, Eddy and Udo talked in English. I would interpret what Udo wanted to say but could not in his second language. If Eddy had any reticence about his new situation, he didn’t show it. He used his incredible energy and open personality in ways only those with confidence and great self-esteem can. At the same time, Udo displayed a great openness to engage Eddy in a variety of subjects.

The higher we went, the more Eddy and Udo seemed to bond. We approached the dirt track that split the face of the vineyard in two. The conversation turned to me. How could I leave such a beautiful place? Eddy asked. I began to detail my affair with an American opera singer who had come to Trier the summer of 1986. I had left a beautiful German working girl, Monika, to take up with the opera singer. I followed her back to Kansas City, where I faced the greatest disappointment of my life. Not only did the opera singer have what she considered a summer fling, but she had given no thought to me and the fact I was coming back to my hometown just to be with her.

I would return to Germany to try my hand at school, but the energy of my vineyard dream had died with the failed love affair.

“You know,” Eddy said, “you’ve been talking about the opera singer and she doesn’t have a name. You speak of her more like you would an earthquake. She’s something that happened, rather than a person.”

“Yes,” Udo said, “I’d met her all those years ago but I can’t remember her name.”

“She had a name and she was like an earthquake or hurricane,” I said. “She rumbled in, changed my life, and then moved on, leaving me disappointed in myself and bereft of what I once held so dear. It wasn’t her fault. I was young and dumb.”

“We’ve all had earthquakes,” Eddy said. “Some are more devastating than others. What about the other woman, this Monika?”

“I still miss Monika,” I said. “I kept up with her for a while. When I visited Germany in 1993, I met her for ice cream in the square in Trier. She was more beautiful than I remember. I told her I’d loved her but was distracted from what was important.

“I didn’t tell her this, but I was 23, you know, and the opera singer was the most erotic and sexual creature I ever met. That was pretty powerful and overwhelmed what I felt for Monika. I still miss her. Sometimes I dream about her, green eyes and wonderfully gentle manner. She was delicate but strong enough to do the hard work in the vineyard. I still wonder if she thinks of me.”

“She does,” Eddy said. “She probably thought of you just recently. You never know what kind of influence you’ve had on someone, and you are a pretty influential kind of guy.”

The thought intrigued me. I’ve never felt myself as consequential.

“Have you thought about finding her again?” Udo asked. “It might be an interesting friendship.”

“I have done the internet searches,” I said. “Every man who’s been jilted or broke his own heart’s done that kind of work. But she’s not the kind of person who’d have an internet presence. I’ve found nothing.”

“You shouldn’t stop,” Eddy said. “Like Udo, I think it would be a friendship worth pursuing. Maybe you have it wrong. Maybe Monika was your earthquake.”

We reached the summit of the hill. The valley spread before us in hues of green. The brown and black tile roofs of the houses snaked along the villages two main streets, one hugging the hill and the other taking off toward the other side of the valley. There were some women working in the vineyard, pulling the young shoots off the base of the vines. They spoke a variety of languages, none of which were German.

“I can certainly see why you used to come up here,” Udo said. He took a deep breath and stared out over the valley. “The view is magnificent.”

“Yeah, this is something to be proud of,” Eddy said. “It’s a great place to think things over, like earthquakes. I’m thinking of one of my many right now.”

“Where would we be without earthquakes or hurricanes?” Udo said.

“Or tornadoes,” I said.

“Oh, there are those too,” Eddy said, turning to the fantastic view before us.

“Then we move on to other earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes,” Udo said. We were thoughtful. A cuckoo echoed in the forest above us. “We always move on to face more.”

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