It’s only a few weeks now until we have to submit our tear-stained ballots.
A memory bubble from my life in the mid-sixties when i was stationed in Germany in the army: the German sports clubs.
When i got off the troop ship in Bremerhaven in September 1964 i already understood that my posting to Germany was an opportunity to perform my duties at an exemplary level and reflect credit upon my family, teachers, ethnicity, religion, home town, state, and country. I also figured this was my chance to see Europe and learn more about Germany and the Germans. Toward the furtherance of the latter goal, one of my cabin mates had given me introductory German lessons, starting with German pronunciation, counting, a set of useful phrases, and some essential beginning vocabulary. So i hit the ground running.
And after i got settled into the BOQ in Frankfurt, my neighbor advised me that an excellent way to meet Germans was to join a German club, the Germans being so big on clubs that they had one for every human activity, so just pick something i was interested in. He must have mentioned sports clubs, which made me think of table tennis, and he put me in contact with a Tischtennisverien that met Wednesday nights in the gymnasium of a public school.
They were happy to accept an American GI as a member and i joined the following week.
I fancied myself a good player, so when i got there i was modestly thinking that i’d probably rank somewhere in the middle. It came as a great shock that i was near the bottom and could beat only a couple of the girls. Omigod, these people are serious!
But they took me in hand and patiently taught me. See, that was part of the Gestalt: the better players had the obligation to play and teach their inferiors. This didn’t mean that i got to play any of the good ones since they were too far out of my league, but those in the lower end of the rankings, grateful that my joining had boosted them all up one notch, pitched in willingly and my game improved significantly. Actually, it improved enough that when i returned to Lubbock for graduate school two years later, i was one of the better players in town.
The club was also a great social outlet, a lot of fun, and an opportunity to learn and practice German.
Shortly after i was transferred to Heidelberg, a sailplaning club (Segelflugzeugverein) that flew on Saturdays from a grass field near Schwetzingen put out notice that it was accepting American members, and since i’d been interested in this sport for years, i joined.
Omigod. It was fascinating. And much different than i’d imagined. In the first place, the only kind of launch i’d ever heard of was by airplane tow, but in German sailplaning clubs the launch was virtually always by cable.
My club owned an old VW bus from which the body had been removed. They mounted on the chassis an American Chrysler V-8 engine to power a high speed winch around which was wrapped about a kilometer’s worth of steel cable. They also owned an old VW bug which was used to unspool the cable across the field to the launch site, where it was attached to the nose of the sailplane.
Meanwhile, the occupant(s) of the plane had boarded and fastened themselves into position while a member had stationed himself at the end of each wing to hold it up.
They used an old Bundeswehr field telephone to tell the winch operator when it was time to rev up the engine and engage the winch. At which point the men at the ends of the wings had time to walk one step and run two steps before the plane was pulled out of their grasp and launched into the air like a kite, a thrilling, at very least, experience for someone who’d never had it.
When the plane reached maximum altitude, the pilot pulled a lever to release the cable, and you were free, free, free at last to soar like a bird while the pilot allowed you to take the student controls and taught you how to make rudimentary flight adjustments. Then he took the controls and demonstrated some of the capabilities of the craft before he brought it around back to the landing strip much too high so that he could end the demonstration with dramatic slip to lose altitude, an essential sailplaning technique since you can’t just point the nose down if you’re too high because you’ll gain too much airspeed.
For the neophytes, i’ll explain that a slip consists of applying hard aileron on one side and hard rudder on the other, which causes the plane to immediately turn sideways in mid-air and fall like a stone. When you’ve lost as much altitude as you want, all you have to do is reverse the aileron and rudder to flip yourself back level and glide smoothly to your landing. By the time the sailplane has skidded to a stop, your passenger will usually have regained consciousness.
After i got some color back into my face, i loved it. Actually, my only disappointment was that i’d somehow imagined that flying in a sailplane would be totally silent, but the wind rushing past the cockpit was surprisingly loud.
Alas, after a month it sank in that participating in the club was an every weekend activity and that i had the choice of continuing in it with the possibility of returning to America with a German sailplaning license that was golden in this country but which i’d not be able to use for the foreseeable future, sailplaning in America not being government subsidized as it was in Germany. Or, i could spend my weekends exploring Germany and learning more than just sailplaning.
So that was the end of my sailplaning, but oh, what memories of circling over the Rhine, seeking thermals.
Meanwhile, to further the aviation theme, a cute little Marine at the Petaluma airport.