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Run with me.
Don't worry if you haven't lately, or don't have the right shoes, this run won't hurt a bit. It's virtual, of course. You can be 10 again, or 12, or whatever age you were when last you ran for the sheer joy of it. I run for many different reasons now and joy is still one of them. I'm grateful that I can run. There's joy in that. I've planned a route. Ready?
We're out the door. We walk across the patio, turn the corner around the house, and in three steps we are in the woods. Here we can start to jog, to warm up. The path under our feet is soft and smooth, the smells are of pine rather then the car exhaust and until we begin breathing harder later the loudest sounds we'll hear are the call of birds.
I start my watch, but the time is important today only as to total duration of this run. It's a short one - half an hour at a fairly easy pace - distance is not important but the hills along the route will separate this endeavor from a truly easy day. This initial stretch is flat though, the surface soft and smooth as I said, and will serve to work out the stiffness and minor aches that keep others on the couch.
A quarter mile through the woods and the scenery changes as we emerge from the trees and enter the farm country, our path now an unpaved 'road' between a horse pasture and a planted field. The surface is flat but uneven, closer attention must be paid to ankle-twisting ground below, especially those stretches where tire ruts are deepest. This is not a traveled road, so grass grows tall and disguises treacherous footing. But eyes can not remain on the ground; we run along a hillside, and though only half way up the view is fine. Hills roll in the distance on the far side of the valley below, fading from green to purple to grey in the distance. On roads below a few cars seem like toys and move slowly through the countryside. The entire scene, even the viewing perspective, is like looking at a model railroad layout on a table. A Gods-eye view of pastoral country, quiet and serene. The parallel to hill country in my past is unmistakable.
A tree line ahead marks the turning point in the trail. We're only a half mile along, but we've been speeding up ever so slightly as we've gone. Now we must think slower as a left turn takes us in an uphill direction. Running at our current pace on this early incline will render the remaining distance a bit uncomfortable. Not a steep hill, but a quarter mile at an increasing grade will still start the real heart rate increase and elevated breathing rate that indicate an entry into "the zone" - the just beyond comfort level I'd like to maintain for the duration of this run. The hilltop is in sight, a final push and we're there.
A ridgeline actually, with a paved, single lane road running along it, a mile-long strip of concrete connecting two small towns. Turn a 360 while jogging in place and claim the reward for every hill climb you'll ever complete: the view.
Ahead the little town grows closer. I'd seen it many times from above, a postage-stamp size town from that perspective, looking for all the world like the perfect German version of a Courier and Ives postcard village offering a year-round look at life in four seasons. Snow-covered winter with smoke curling upward from chimneys gives way to spring when the fields stretched out along the valley are brought to life. Summer arrives and the ground becomes a verdant patchwork green.
Autumn follows and the fruit trees planted neatly like soldiers in formation on the hillside are ready for the harvest. I'd never visited this side of the ridgeline until just a couple days ago when I saw the village transform from matchbox town to real as I descended on this road. Now we enter it together. See the large, two story houses on either side of us? Old but solid, and the closer to center we get the older they appear. These small German towns survived two World Wars, mostly without physical damage; the battlegrounds were in other countries and there was no industry here to attract allied bombs.
The comparison to hill country towns in America is unavoidable, inescapable. Homes, small shops, and people appear virtually indistinguishable from their counterparts across the Atlantic. Slight variations in architecture and clothing, and Opels instead of Chevys in the streets, but otherwise I'm sure I've found the archetype for many a small American community.
I have a high-detail Atlas of this part of Germany back at the house. Even though it's highway system is the envy of the world, the vast majority of Germany's roads are narrow country lanes, often unpaved and rarely traveled by traffic faster then bicycles. The countryside is crisscrossed with these roads, utopian for those like me who consider the run or ride through this scenic beauty as the highpoint to plan a day around. I scouted the route the other day, before that first trip through this town. I couldn't resist when I saw the symbol for "monument" on the map in the village center. What sort of monument could such a small town boast? Surely there were no more then one hundred homes here, and a hand full of shops. I had an idea what I would find, and mostly I was right. We're approaching it now.
The paved road beneath our feet is leveling out from the downhill, the effort required to maintain forward motion is increasing. A different set of muscles is in use. My stride is returning to "normal". Around the slight bend ahead is the center of town, and though we've said hello to a few folks along the way so far no cars have passed to force us to the side of the road. We'll slow our pace now to prepare for a brief stop at the monument ahead.
And there it is, just across the main street that intersects this one at the center of town. A small fenced area, gravel covered with nice garden type landscaping and a couple benches facing a five-column memorial. The center column is about fifteen feet tall, capped with a crucifix, and bears two dates. I'd assume the first is the founding of the town and the second the date of the erection of this memorial, though based on the state of the engraving on the other four columns it appears older then it reads.
Those other four columns bear lists of names below years. 1914 is the first year listed, then 1915 and so on, until about halfway down the second column a jump from 1918 to 1940. A 22-year break from war deaths, then increasing numbers for every year of the Second World War. Fifty-six names in total, the dead of two world wars from a town that now, 60 years later, consists of about 100 homes, perhaps a few more or less.
What a price to pay. Could any of the few families of this town be untouched? Most of the twenty or so last names are repeated. The last name listed first below 1914 is Schneider, and six more follow, four in the first war and 3 in the second. The supply of Schneiders was lower then, perhaps? Klinks, Wagners, Braums and others are listed. All German names, but all of which can be found in any American phonebook, or any American military graveyard.
My heart rate is slowing; we must resume our run soon. But note this: the last year listed is 1947, though hostilities in Europe ceased in 1945. Are the additional dead based on the year they died, or the year their deaths were discovered? Did they die then from wounds received years before in combat?
All I have are the names. No cause of death, no place of death. France? Germany? Russia? Poland? Jeep wreck, gunshot, plane crash, disease? The people of this town don't need that, I suppose. They know. And this strange American in their midst will not ask them. Not today. A quick prayer then and we're off on a different road out of the town.
It does not take long to exit that speck of a village, that small cluster of humanity that seems to have paid a high price for the madness of a few. The road rises slowly out of the valley once the last of the homes of the Schneiders are behind us. We are gradually climbing up the far side of the narrow valley from which we entered. We are passing the fields and orchards we viewed as a distant patchwork quilt from the opposite ridgeline, and the incline is becoming steep. There are no farm houses here, for farmers live in the villages and work the fields. Currently there are no farmers out; we have the world to ourselves here.
Save energy, for after this long steady climb we'll have a choice. We could enjoy the view briefly then turn and take a straight and steep route back into the valley, then immediately climb straight to the top of the first ridge, then down to home. This is the shortest route, but neither the climb nor the descents are easy. The other option involves following this road, which you may notice is now rough and crumbling pavement, along the ridgeline through about 3/4 of a mile of dense and scenic woods to where it intersects the first ridge, then following the road along that ridge to our point we first joined it, then down the hill to home. Slightly longer but no steep climb. We can decide once we hit the top. We can't stop now though, we must after all, get home.
Please don't complain. After all, you agreed to join me on this run. You may feel better if you take in the view as we climb out of the valley. Spectacular. And not uncommon for this area. This beautiful and now serene part of the world has changed hands a few times in a once seemingly endless series of wars between Germany and France, and clearly a significant number of people in that town below us felt it was worth dying for.
I researched the name Schneider after my first visit there. It's literal translation into English is cutter, but its meaning is actually "German, occupational name referred to the tailor who made and sold outer garments." So Taylor then, for the English equivalent. I don't know any Schneiders, nor any Taylors, though I'm sure I've met several over the years.
Keep moving... we're almost at the top...
Did you know 17 Schneiders have their names etched in stone on the Vietnam Memorial Wall? I started counting 'Taylors' too but quit after 60. Seventeen Schneiders died for America in Vietnam. None were from West Virginia. Parts of Germany look a lot like West Virginia. I have an uncle who agrees with this. He spent some of WWII here as a POW.
Top of the hill at last, and I don't know about you but I'm sucking air and my heart's pounding like a jackhammer. A cliche, I know, but true, so I said it, though I can't talk too well right now. We'll go slowly until we return from this anaerobic intensity level, okay?
During Vietnam, West Virginia had the highest casualty rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. The state had 711 casualties -- 39.9 deaths per 100,000 people.
I did not know that before today. Just discovered that fact on The Wall page. West Virginia rightfully doesn't brag about it.
When my grandmother passed away some years ago the family spent long hours in that house on the hill sorting her lifetime's accumulation of things. My wife found a bible that belonged to my uncle - he did not want it. It's a hardcover, but showing its age, and probably signs of the rigors of its journey to that house. It's English language, King James Version...
And stamped on the inside cover is the imprint of the Stalag where he spent the latter part of WWII, having been shot down over Germany on a fighter mission.
I've brought that book back to Germany where it sits on a shelf in my living room. near a picture of my father in his army uniform from WWII and my Grandfather in uniform from WWI.
In my living room in a house in a small town in Germany; surrounded by hills and forest and tranquil beauty. What would be the thoughts of those who made this possible, at such high cost, to look upon this now?
Look at the view now. Did I promise you it would be worth the climb? You can see nearly the whole course we've run, stretched out behind us and over there on the far ridgeline. And look there, that's the road home, the route is in plain view. Or that longer route, if you'd prefer. It's mostly viewable except for the bit in the trees up ahead. I always tire a little in the valleys, when so little of the course is in sight. How is it I get an energy boost at the top of the hills when I can see the entire road, where I've been and where I'm going? Why are the valley roads sometimes such a chore? I know the road is there, why do I need to see it?
Part of the human condition I suppose. Come, rest awaits us at home, by the fire.
Though we've still got a long way to run.
wow-what a nice piece. took the run with you. scottPosted by scott holmes at June 13, 2004 04:01 PM
Thank God you stopped ... huh, huh ... in ... huh, huh ... town ... huh, huh ... I was ready to drop.Posted by Frank DiSalle at June 13, 2004 10:45 PM
Wonderful piece, a glorious alternative to all the rushed and unhealthy things we do for our selves....We will pass this along.Posted by Brando at June 14, 2004 02:18 PM
So beautiful it is,if I had a chance,I would go there.Posted by brian at June 15, 2004 02:05 PM
Long ago, in the 70's, I did a similar run in Scotland. Have a look at the memorial in the wee village of Invercoe. It appears as if every able bodied male in the village was lost in WWI. It just breaks your heart.Posted by John Schedler at June 15, 2004 02:42 PM
Did I miss it? What part of Germany is this? What's it near? I lived in Deutschland for 10 years as a kid (GI brat) in Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Ramstein.Posted by rivlax at June 15, 2004 03:55 PM
fantastic.Posted by Matt at June 15, 2004 05:20 PM
I knew it was Germany from the first picture, I have spent 10 of 16 years in the Army in Germany.
Can't quite figure the area yet, betting on Rhein Pfalz area.
Sitting here in the heat of Iraq, I long for the cool of Germany, and the hills too. Iraq is flat as a board, I hate the secener here. Thanks for the pix a\of a better place.Posted by SFC SKI at June 16, 2004 01:56 PM
That takes me back to Beautiful Wife and I on our first drive through the German Countryside around Ramstein AB.
And all of a sudden it hit me...why my Mom's side of the family settled in Wisconsin...it must have looked just like home...and the weather is just about as shitty.Posted by Timmer at June 22, 2004 07:28 PM Hide Comments | Show/Add Comments in Popup Window(9) | (Note: You must refresh main page to view newly posted comments here)