Monday, January 10, 2005

Dave & Leroy's Excellent Adventure

It was 1950, a good year for innocents abroad. Having completed my junior year without serious setbacks, I was the fortunate recipient of a decent if not great report card from the Army's Dependent High School in Frankfurt, Germany. Leroy Thomas, my close friend and compatriot, was likewise blessed with good grades and we were both anxious to execute a plan put into place over the course of the school year. Devious though it may have been, our intentions were honorable in that we simply wanted to fulfill boyhood dreams of unrestricted travel.

The "plan" came about as an offshoot of our successes as merchants during our after school hours. We were the purveyors of cigarettes and coffee obtained from our friends who had not yet learned to indulge in these vices but who nevertheless had ration cards good for the purchase of same. Selling these mainstays on the local economy was frowned upon, or should I say verboten, by the authorities; however, it was widely done and the demand was overwhelming. At every street corner the locals asked us if we had cigarettes or coffee to sell. We felt at the time that we were probably a tad on the shady side of propriety, but the rewards were compelling, not to mention the gratitude of the recipients.

We had to overcome some initial learning setbacks, one of the toughest of all being that payment must be received at time of delivery. Being creditors was not a quick way to prosperity in those times. Not being totally devoid of gray matter, we became in time quite the enterprising little sales team, doing our utmost to meet the unrelenting demand and thereby earning a very decent return on a modest investment. So it came to pass that after completing our 11th school year, we found ourselves quite able financially to execute our plan.

Outfitting our bicycles, and provisioning them with the latest in panniers and the necessities for traveling light, we were ready to put the "plan" into action. We would bike through scenic areas of Europe but where the areas were mainly industrial we would put the bikes aboard a train and travel through in style. Our goal was to reach the French Riviera, tales of which had not escaped our young ears and we felt we must experience this scene before school began in the fall. Gaining parental approval for the venture was carefully planned. No kid worth his salt would have a big problem here. The pitch was made over time with just a little of the plan laid out in detail. "We'll just be going to southern Germany; probably be gone the better part of a week". "It won't cost much because we will spend time with friends who live in other military communities to the south," and so it went. Youth hostels would be used where available. After the abbreviated version of the venture was parentally approved and underway, various extensions and extenuating circumstances could be artfully engineered and trotted out to keep our parents in a relaxed and unconcerned state.

The plan in a nutshell was to bicycle our way south from Frankfurt, through Bavaria and Switzerland, on to Italy and finally to the south of France. In reality, we put the bikes on the train in Frankfurt and journeyed all the way past Munich before detraining and beginning our pedaling travels. We traveled several days through Bavaria, encountering some of the foothills of the Alps. We would check in at guesthouses Gasthaeuser, most of which also served basic meals, spend the night and cycle on the following day. Once we encountered the serious and steep grades of the Alps, we fell back and regrouped. Obviously we were not the cyclists we thought we were while cycling around Frankfurt and dreaming of lofty and distant travel.

So it was that when we happened upon a train station in a small Bavarian town close to the Swiss border, we ticketed through the Alps and the industrial region bordering Milan in Italy. We arrived after midnight in Milan, very tired and worn out. We had transferred several times to finally get a mainline international through train and after the hassle of getting the bikes liberated from the baggage car, decided it was time to get some sleep. Looking down at the large, mainly darkened city from the entrance to the train station which stood three levels above the street and at the top of a very wide and high concrete stairway, we decided the best bet at that time of night was to sleep in the terminal. So we checked the bikes at a luggage checkpoint, took our receipts and headed for the waiting room. The large and dimly lighted waiting room contained hard and straight backed wooden benches. At least at that time of night it was sparsely occupied. We decided to take off our shoes and sleep until daybreak; then get back on the bikes and head south toward the Italian-French border.

Two Italian Policemen who seemed to think I could understand their language awakened me. They were barking what seemed to be questions and gesturing as only Italians can. Looking around for Leroy, I realized he was not there. Likewise I realized our shoes were missing as well. After managing to find my passport and displaying it to the officers, they took me in tow to the police station located up yet another level in the mammoth terminal. As we entered I spotted Leroy. He had obviously been roughed up as he was bruised and scratched and was limping noticeably. We were placed in a room and questioned at length by an officer who spoke some English. Although we never fully comprehended what happened, I learned that night that Leroy was a sleepwalker. Our theory of what happened is that Leroy sleep-walked barefooted out of the waiting room, exited the main station and fell from the side of the unguarded stairway leading up to the main station. Although the bushes fortunately broke his fall and possibly saved his life, he was pretty well battered and had a very sore and swollen ankle. The Police theory was that Leroy stole something and in attempting to escape, jumped from the two-story stair side. They definitely did not want to believe our opinion about what happened, but the fact that we both packed US passports served us well and in the end they insisted we leave on the next train.
Becoming persona non grata in Italy on our first day was not an auspicious beginning, but the offer of getting out of Police custody was compelling. A policeman accompanied us back to the waiting room, where a search for our shoes proved fruitless; then to the ticket windows where we purchased tickets to Ventimeglia, the Italian-French border crossing. At this point the Policeman escorted the limping Leroy and me to the baggage room where we repatriated our bicycles; then to the departure gate where he made certain we boarded the train very shoeless and disheveled.

By the time we arrived at the border, Leroy was feeling pretty good, save for his swollen ankle, so we overnighted there with the fervent hope that the ankle would undergo a speedy if not miraculous recovery. Grace befell us and by the next morning after a long but successful search for new shoes and after taking a few rounds on the bike, Leroy announced his determination to pedal onward. Although he still walked with a decided limp, he managed to pedal the rest of the way, along the Mediterranean coast, through numerous towns with glorious vistas and beaches where we would frequently stop for swimming or relaxation. We didn't break any distance records but the towns are close together and the area was, after all, the objective of our journey. We managed to spend five weeks on the Riviera, traveling almost the entire length of the coast, Monte Carlo, Antibes, Cannes and Nice, stopping just short of Marseilles, a ragged port city of no interest.

During our time there we made our headquarters in Nice, in a small hotel located a half dozen streets back from the beach, a third story walk-up. I remember walking to the beach each morning, Leroy sometimes hobbling along a few paces behind. We lived on sandwiches we made from fixings bought at the bakery & meat market. That, along with giant snap-cap bottles of lemonade saw us through the days. Weekly calls to our parents with assurances that we were doing great and accounts of how the ankle needed a bit more time to mend seemed to do the trick nicely for extending our leave of absence. It was a great time for a couple of 16-year-old kids and so many bikinis to google at. The war had not touched this area, at least not to a remarkable extent. The buildings were mostly old and well cared for and the waterfront was posh beyond belief. One of the highlights was seeing Elizabeth Taylor on the street one day in a pair of very yellow, very short shorts. She was there with hubby Nicky Hilton, aboard their yacht moored in the harbor. We followed her right into the American Express office and stood scribbling at the counter while eyeing her as she cashed a check. Wow, our brush with fame! The next day we rented a paddleboat and circumnavigated their yacht several times but never saw her again.

One morning a US aircraft carrier dropped anchor in the bay and the landing tenders started making for shore. The town became a sea of white hats and the most amazing thing happened. Pretty and not so pretty girls were coming to the dockside in great numbers, walking down narrow streets, giggling and heading for the landing area. Leroy observed this phenomenon for a while, watching the sailors and girls walking together, arm in arm, toward the various bars and dives along the back streets, and flatly declared his intention to join the Navy. I wonder if he ever did?

I lost track of Leroy after Germany, but I'm sure the memories of our summer on the Riviera remain as vivid for him as they do for me. I think we gained a new dimension from our experiences, another waypoint on our journey to adulthood.

© 2005 David Agniel


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