Friday, January 10, 2014

He was a friend of mine

When I was 22, a Porsche carrying my best buddy and two other friends veered off a winding country road at high speed, pin-balled from tree to tree and killed them all. I wasn’t with them only because I had decided to take a night off from our usual rounds.

Inge and Les,, seen here at a Fourth of July party in 1968,
 were both killed in the accident.
This happened in the middle of the night on a stretch of road in rural West Germany. My buddy, Richard Leslie, and I were stationed there as U.S. army Russian voice intercept operators. Because there was no base there, we lived in gasthauses or local homes. My room was on a pig farm. We worked at an even more rural outstation, a cluster of trucks and an antenna field inside concertina wire on a hill near the Elbe River. Our job was to monitor Soviet military communications in East Germany.

Les’s hitch was nearing its end. He was eight days from going home.

He and I were opposites, he the smart, street-wise embracer of life with no savings account, I the introspective brooder. He’d been in Germany for two years when I got there. He was my trick chief -- my boss -- during our rotating shifts at the out-station. After work he took me under his wing, pushing me to see Germany, learn German, meet Germans rather than spend all my time with the other soldiers. A couple of weeks before he died, we went to the Oktoberfest in Munich. I paid for the trip – flight, hotel, meals, beer – after losing a cut of the cards. Crazy, but as I said, I was 22.

Bill Weis, our trusty MP, also died in the accident. 
The year was 1968, a terrible time in so many ways: the Tet Offensive in January, the Martin Luther King assassination in April, Bobby Kennedy in June, the violent political conventions of summer. We were 64 Americans living and working in far-away German dorfs. We were alienated, and these events made us even more doubtful about what we would return home to.

Then, suddenly, we found ourselves in the center of things. The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in August. Half our linguists were sent south, closer to the action, and the rest of us went on 12-and-12 shifts. In the back of a truck inside a small area enclosed by concertina wire, I worked at my intercept radio from noon to midnight every day for nearly two months. Voice traffic among Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces was so busy that the time flew. [More about that experience here.]

The trip to Munich for the Oktoberfest was R&R after this intense stretch. Les was killed shortly after we returned. His girlfriend Inge and our outstation MP Bill Weis died with him.

That's me in front of Bill Weis's Porsche. It was the summer of '68, and we
were about to board a ferry in Sweden for the trip back to Germany. A few
months later, my friends were killed in this car. The morning after the
crash, when we soldiers came to work, the wreck was sitting in the dirt near
our outstation. It look like a crushed tin can.      
Strange as it may sound, I bring all this up because the hoopla about the new movie Inside Llewyn Davis reminded me of it. The movie is based roughly on a week in the life of the late Dave Van Ronk, the growly Greenwich Village singer and guitarist known as “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.”

After Les’s death, my mind ran dark and angry for weeks. My only solace was a big-reel audiotape that included Van Ronk’s version of “He Was a Friend of Mine.” I listened to that song  and rewound it and played it again and again. I’d liked Van Ronk’s music for a while, but “He Was a Friend of Mine” became a refuge. You probably know it, but here are the first two verses:

He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
Every time I think about him now
Lord, I just can’t keep from cryin’
’Cause he was a friend of mine

He died on the road
He died on the road
He never had enough money
To pay his room or board
And he was a friend of mine

Not many weeks after Les’s death, I was transferred to our main station in Kassel, West Germany, to work as a analyst on Soviet artillery and armor units. There, on Jan. 30, 1969, I met Monique Praet at a Belgian bar. My favorite Van Ronk song later became the sweet ballad “Another Time and Place.” It begins:

When first I met you years ago
in another time and place
a thought came to my mind
I’d never seen a kinder face
or warmer laugh and gentler smile
or eyes so full of light
I’d be a fool if I didn’t fall
in love with you that night

Monique saved me from my despair all those years ago and became my soul-mate. We married a year after “that night,” and this month we celebrate our 44th anniversary.   

Over those years I’ve put on a Dave Van Ronk record or tape or CD every now and then. Since Christmas, when I received his three-CD set and posthumous memoir as gifts, I’ve worn Monique out with music from the CDs and anecdotes from the book.

Elijah Wald, a folk and blues guitarist whose music criticism used to appear regularly in the Boston Globe, completed the memoir after Van Ronk’s death in 2002. The book is called The Mayor of MacDougal Street. The Van Ronk in its pages is irreverent, generous, radical, profane, likable and genuine. His disdain for “phonies” rivals Holden Caulfield’s.

In my next post, I’ll share a few favorite excerpts to give you a taste of the book.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful column, Miked, about the power of love after despair.