Friday, November 13, 2009

The Stuttgart Death Ride

During one of my Army tours in Germany, I found myself on a temporary duty stint outside of Stuttgart on a small airfield. While there, I found out a friend of mine was stationed at a barracks a few miles away. One Saturday I made arrangements to meet him.

In planning my visit, I misjudged the distance to where he lived. Instead of it taking about an hour, it ended up taking 2 1/2 hours to walk there. That put my visit time in a bit of a crunch. After meeting some of his new coworkers he suggested we all head out to a local haunt where the folks in his unit generally hung out. This turned out to be a 30 minute walk - in the opposite the direction I'd just come from.

We ate, drank some beers and told lies for a few hours. I had to work the next morning, so about 9 pm I decided to catch a taxi and head home. The place we were was in a small shopping center, so I figured there would be a cab stand outside (at the time it was illegal to hail a cab on the street). Not seeing one, I looked for a phone booth since there was usually a taxi ad with a number to call inside the booth. There was no phone booth.

I went back inside and asked the bartender if he would please call me a cab. He told me taxis didn't run near the bar's location. I was rather shocked to hear that. I couldn't imagine a place in a relatively built up area near a large city in Germany would have no taxi service.

I returned to the group at the table and told them my transportation dilemma. I had to ask them how to get back to the main road so I could hike it back to the airfield. One of the guys pointed out a group at a nearby table where someone in their unit was sitting with his girlfriend and her roommate. The ladies just happened to work on the airfield where I needed to go. He led me over and introduced me. I asked for a lift and they agreed to take me back when they were ready to go.

When they were ready to leave they signaled me to come with them. The boyfriend eyed me suspiciously as we walked out to their car. I guess he was the jealous type, though I was no threat to his relationship. I just needed a ride. We hopped in the car, the ladies in the front seat and me in the back with their baskets of clean laundry.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, the driver announced to me: "I just got my driver's license yesterday and bought this car this morning. Isn't that cool?" I didn't think much of it, since everyone needed to get a special "U.S. Army, Europe" drivers license to drive civilian vehicles in Germany. Then she added, "I've never driven before. I'm completely new at this."

That made me a little nervous, but she seemed to be handling herself well enough. I started to relax, but just for a minute.

Those who have lived in Europe know how the fog can be in the Fall and Winter. You can be driving along one minute in clear sky and clear air with visibility going on for miles and the next minute you're in a very thick fog through which you can barely see to the end of the hood of your car. This fog is THICK - and I mean THICK. The only place I've ever seen fog that comes close to this is on the coast of California.

We ran into one of those fog banks going along the Autobahn at about 120 "clicks" (kilometers per hour - about 70 MPH). It's really quite like hitting a wall, only you go through it while not being able to see through it. The only way I could tell we were moving was to look up out the window where I could barely make out the street lights going by.

One of the first mistakes rookie drivers make in a fog is to turn their brights on - even though every teaching manual and class informs not to do it. This young driver clicked on the brights, enveloping us in a shroud of light which even obscured the street lights I could see beforehand.

Panic started welling up inside me. Here we were, going about 70 MPH down the Autobahn totally blind. There was no way this young lady could see where we were going. I wanted to say something, but I didn't want to offend because she might stop and kick me out of the car, leaving me stranded not knowing where I was. "Think," I said to myself, "Think!"

I fished around in the dark back seat for the seat belts while I frantically tried to come up with some way to communicate to the driver to turn the bright lights off without offending her. As I found the seat belt, it came to me. I said to her, forcing my voice to sound calm and matter-of-fact, "You know, I once read in Reader's Digest that it's a bad idea to use the brights in fog because it makes it  harder to see where you're going."

"Good," I thought to myself, "that was good." Reader's Digest, I reasoned, was a non-threatening source of conventional wisdom which wouldn't offend the young lady.

"Really," she said, "I never heard of that." She clicked off the brights. Before I could breathe a sigh of relief, turned the lights off. Completely off. Bright lights, regular lights, running lights; they were all off.

Admittedly, with the street lights peering their way through the fog from above, I could actually see the road better; even better than when the regular lights were on. Still, in a dark colored car, at night, with no lights on, no one could see us. This was still very dangerous.

At this point, I wasn't too worried about offending because I was more worried about getting hit by another vehicle rather than running off the road. I said, "Well, you can see better, but with your lights off no one can see you. You really should turn the lights back on."

She turned the parking lights on and said, "There. Now we can see and others can see us." This wasn't optimal, but I reasoned on the Autobahn, with everyone going in the same direction, at least we probably wouldn't be hit by another vehicle.

We exited the Autobahn and took the short road up to the gate of the air field. Normally, one would dim the headlights as they approach the gate. In this case, the headlights were dimmed as we turned onto the road. The guard at the gate mentioned this to the driver when we stopped so he could check our ID cards. He said something like, "You're not supposed to dim your lights that far back, just when you approach the gate." When she told him she turned off the lights so she could see better in the fog, the guard told her that was dangerous and looked at me like I had something to do with her decision to turn the things off. I guess his attitude was that since I was "The Man of the Car" I should have done something about it. Gender, of course, had nothing to do with this - she was a new driver and didn't know how to drive in the fog and that was it. At this point, I was just grateful to be one piece.

As we pulled up to the building I was staying, the ladies invited me to go partying with them the following evening. I politely declined as I quickly made my way to my room, thankful I'd survived what would be known as "The Stuttgart Death Ride."

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