By Bruce Thompson
In the fall of 1973, I was 17 years old and backpacking around Europe on a student rail pass. With my faded blue jeans, denim jacket and Boy Scout rucksack, I was indistinguishable from the other American hippies wandering through the hostels and train stations of Copenhagen, Stockholm, Munich, Salzburg, and Paris.
Late one Sunday, I arrived at a crowded Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, one of the world’s busiest transit hubs, with no idea where to spend the night. Earlier in my travels, someone had told me that any American overseas could find shelter at a military base. Though I’d been a Vietnam War protester, their offer of hospitality sounded good. I’d had enough bratwurst and sauerkraut and was longing for the tastes of home.
One of my father’s colleagues who had been stationed in West Germany had given me a list of all the military stations near Frankfurt. Now, with no place to crash, I took a bus to the Rhein-Main, the primary port of entry for all U.S. forces during the Cold War.
The bus dropped me near a lonely guard tower and gatehouse next to fence after fence of concertina wire through which I could see hangers in the distance. It was night. The ghostly shadows of the sodium vapor lights, and the sweeping searchlight were like something out of a war movie. Stretching over the roadway and guard tower was a large arch that said Rhein-Main Air Base: GATEWAY TO EUROPE
I walked up to the guard on duty, with a sinking feeling, and showed him my ID.
“The purpose of your visit?” he asked.
“I was told that I could spend the night here. As a U.S. citizen.”
He shook his head and laughed. “OK. Let me call Jimmy.”
A few minutes later, a guy rode up on a bicycle and signed me in as his guest. Not much older than me, this wiry figure in fatigues and a khaki ski cap reached out his hand and introduced himself in a thick Brooklyn accent. Jimmy’s grip was formidable, and though short, he was powerfully built. He led me over to the long beige administrative building that housed the drug rehab center.
After Vietnam, the military tried to create safe places for soldiers and airmen to work on their recovery. According to Jimmy, this place also doubled as a crash pad. We walked down halls of standard-issue military institutional drabness but the inner rooms were decorated with psychedelic posters of Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Janis Joplin. Beanbag chairs and a futon sprawled across the floor. With the colored lights, an awesome stereo, and a great selection of LPs, including the Who and Led Zeppelin, I felt like I was in my bedroom back home.
Jimmy said I could crash there for as long as I liked. Then he led me to a vending machine filled with Budweiser. When we came back to the room, he put on a record, lit up a bowl of hash, and told me his life story.
Jimmy had gotten busted back in the States. Since the military needed endless bodies, he was offered a choice: go to prison or go to Vietnam. He opted for the jungle. But then he figured out a way to manipulate the system, swapping that assignment for a longer stint in Germany.
He convinced the military that he was a great skier and got himself assigned to the mountain unit in Bavaria. Since there was little to do, he ended up running scams out of the base in Frankfurt. Jimmy managed to supply drugs to the other G.I.s, then came up with another boondoggle: selling Levis from the PX store to the local Germans. At a steep increase in price.
As we hung out getting high and drinking Buds, Jimmy bragged that he was also a highly trained martial arts expert. He could kill with one flick of his wrist. “No way,” I shot back. “You’re full of it.” Wrong thing to say. I could feel a dark energy rising in my friend. Jimmy took this as a challenge and steered me down the hallway to the bathroom with a line of five sinks along the wall.
“Want to bet I can’t break a porcelain sink with one karate chop?”
“Jimmy, I believe you. You’re cool.”
He stood back, stared at a sink, tightened his hand in preparation, and then: WHAM!
The sink shattered. And the pipe burst as well. Now there were bits of porcelain everywhere and water was shooting straight up into the air.
Jimmy yelled gleefully. “Wasn’t that great! Let’s do another. This time I’ll use my foot.”
With a perfect martial arts kick, the next sink exploded into a hundred pieces.. At this point, I was getting nervous. “Jimmy, shouldn’t we get the hell out of here? What if someone catches us?”
“Don’t worry. We’ll just say the plumbing was already broken. This is the military. Things are always getting smashed.”
We managed to walk away from this damage scot-free.
Though Jimmy could be a little unpredictable, he was the perfect person to help me work the system; thanks to him, I got fed and had a roof over my head. For the next few days, I had no sense whatsoever that I was in Germany, and between the hash, the beer, and the monotonous surroundings, time began to blur.
Then suddenly everything shifted. Each day I woke up to a constant deep hum and disconcerting rumble, and there was an electric tension in the air. Jimmy was nowhere to be seen. On October 25, he returned, shaken.
“You can’t leave the building,” Jimmy said. “The whole base is on lockdown. We’re at Defcon Three. The planes are on the tarmac. Our nukes are armed and we’re ready to go at it with the Ruskies–they’re helping the Arabs and Nixon wants them to back off.” He sighed. “Can you fucking believe it? We haven’t been on this high alert since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
“Holy fucking shit!”
The Arab-Israeli war was underway and here I was totally stoned–a sitting duck at a prime military target. At one of our most important bases, 180 miles from the nearest Warsaw Pact position. If a nuclear war started, we’d be the first to go.
“Jimmy, I gotta leave. Right now.”
“Not until the Defcon level goes down.”
For the next few days information was hard to come by. Only by reading the International Herald Tribune did we learn that the Soviets stood down and decided not to join the Arabs in their fight against Israel. Our greatest fear went unrealized—that Nixon would try to distract us from Watergate with another war. When the alert level dropped, I asked Jimmy for some American comfort food from the PX and planned to leave the next morning.
“No problem bro,” he said.
That afternoon, he handed me two jumbo bags of Kraft Miniature Colored Marshmallows and a large jar of peanut butter. “Well. Marshmallows won’t take up much weight in my pack,” I said, trying not to sound too disappointed. ”And who doesn’t love Skippy’s.”
Soon I was on a train from Frankfurt to Amsterdam. At the first few stops, I saw lines of businessmen in dark gray suits, with expressionless faces, who appeared to be anesthetized, or in a trance. Giddy from the bizarre escape from nuclear Armageddon, I wanted to shake them. Didn’t they realize what a close called we’d all had? I dipped those marshmallows from the PX into peanut butter and sent these flying projectiles through the open window. SPLAT. SPLAT SPLAT Better to be hit by a marshmallow than a Soviet SS-18!
Ten years later, I too, stood on a train platform in a pinstripe suit. I worked as an executive at a major bank in San Francisco, and longed for the carefree days when I could sling a small rucksack over my back and travel for months on end. It took nearly another decade, after making mark in finance and economics, to step back and reorganize my life. In 1989, I left the corporate world, grabbed my old backpack and went off to Europe to recapture my old spark. As an independent consultant and adjunct professor I have taken extended trips overseas, ever since.
When I think about that fall I spent bumming around Europe in the 70s, I am struck by what an innocent time this was. Can you imagine walking up to a military base and camping out free for a couple of weeks? Or being welcomed by a character like Jimmy?
The Rhein-Main Air Base was attacked twelve years after my visit. A Red Army terrorist group smuggled a car bomb through the main gate. The field has since been annexed by the Frankfurt airport, and the base has been turned into four-star business hotels.
As for Jimmy, who always landed on his feet, Google informs me that he has had a long and illustrious military career.
At Stanford, Bruce Thompson studied economics under Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Nobel Laureates Ken Arrow and Milton Friedman. He has worked at The Institute for the Future, Wells Fargo, and now teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Photo credits for montage (above) of Arab-Israeli war
Israeli Tanks Cross the Suez Canal – Flickr – Israel Defense Forces.jpg: Israel Defense Forces. File:חייל מתפלל בימי מלחמת יום הכיפורים.jpg:Avi Simchoni(1950–)Description”Israeli photographer. Date of birth1950. JerusalemAuthority Control: Q93873850File: Yom Kippur War. XXVII.jpg: בני הדר Bamahane.
File:Israel Air Forces' Mirage V aircraft Flying Over the Golan Heights – Flickr – Israel Defense Forces.jpg: Israel Defense Forces
File:Egyptian Soldiers – Flickr – The Central Intelligence Agency.jpg: The Central Intelligence AgencyFile:Egypt flag on 6oct war.jpg:
Good Muslimderivative work: Matankic – This file was derived from:Israeli Tanks Cross the Suez Canal – Flickr – Israel Defense Forces.jpg:חייל מתפלל בימי מלחמת יום הכיפורים.jpg:Yom Kippur War. XXVII.
jpg:Israel Air Forces' Mirage V aircraft Flying Over the Golan Heights – Flickr – Israel Defense Forces.
jpg:Egyptian Soldiers – Flickr – The Central Intelligence Agency.jpg:Egypt flag on 6oct war.jpg:, CC BY-SA 3.0,