Celtic Illumination, part 193, Rocking, rolling, riding.
It was always good to get back to Germany and normality, well; relative normality. It was usually pretty quiet after a long detachment as people would take time off to be with their family. It was a nice slow pace of life but gradually it would build back up again. Many of us would be training hard for the upcoming rugby season. I had even been chosen to represent the station in a rugby sevens competition. These competitions were very serious and it was a great honour to be selected. Normally there would be fifteen players per team, now; still on the same sized pitch, you would field seven players. To make this even better, the competition was to be held in Berlin.
We had to catch a military train in Braunschweig and that would take us to Berlin. I was so looking forward to seeing Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, even the Berlin wall itself. There were lots of rules and regulations to follow and it was quite unsettling to have armed troops, the train guard, running up and down the carriages. The train was used as a symbol of Western opulence and was almost as luxurious as the famous Orient Express. The food was first class and they even had their own labelled wine. The Russians played their version of the one-upmanship game as well, by placing thousands of tanks beside the tracks at a tank depot called, I think, Kirchmoser. They weren’t aware that some of us knew the tanks didn’t work.
The train would stop at a place called Marienborn where the Russians would inspect and stamp the travel documents. There would be an Officer Commanding the train and a Warrant Officer, both British Army, along with an interpreter who would disembark and march along the platform. It was very interesting to watch and almost as weird as a Monty Python sketch. The British Army guys would be ramrod straight, snapping to attention and slicing out salutes while the Russians were very casual and relaxed, almost disinterested. We had been told that the game to play at the border crossing was to try and get the Russian guards to move.
You are probably aware of the guards at Buckingham Palace who famously refuse to move or even grimace, no matter what the tourists get up to. What we would do with the Russian guards is that, once the party of people had gone inside the station to inspect the travel documents, we would throw bars of chocolate, or packets of cigarettes, so that they would land close to the feet of a guard. The guards were supposed to be standing to attention and not allowed to move but the temptation of a brand new packet of twenty Benson and Hedges, or a bar of Cadburys chocolate, would be too much for some of the guards who would bend down, take the item and squirrel it away in his pockets.
This of course would send up a roar from those on the train and was quite entertaining. There was some kerfuffle along the line, at Helmstedt, where the engine had to be changed to take us across East Germany and then changed again as we arrived at Berlin. The journey was really interesting and was like trundling through a sort of time warp. Passing through train stations where the station signs would still be in old Germanic gothic script, seeing steam trains and horses and carts rather than trucks or lorries was strange. Perhaps the weirdest sight would have been huge women in bra and trousers swinging pick axes and heaving shovels along the train tracks.
We had the usual security brief on arrival and were given a list of places that we should not visit. The main Hofbrauhaus in Berlin was number one on the list and of course it was now the first place we intended to visit. For the first night we loaded up on beer in the rugby club at RAF Gatow. Again it was interesting to be somewhere so connected to history such as Gatow, which is where the famous Berlin airlift had come in to. We met many of the other teams who would be playing in the competition and sized up the opposition. We then headed for Berlin itself. There were lots of suggestions about where to go. Many of the guys wanted to visit the large brothels where they put live sex shows on as part of the entertainment. I don’t think it was because they were perverts but more because they had never seen anything like it before.
Someone spotted an Irish pub and it was decided that we should, have a few pints of the black stuff. Sort of went against my beliefs to drink Guinness in Berlin especially with the vast range of beautiful German beers on offer. Someone else was buying so I didn’t complain. I do remember that there were about one dozen of us and the barman lined all the pints up along the bar. We were told to wait until they were all poured before anyone touched a drink. With the final pint poured I was invited, as an Irishman, to taste the Guinness and give my opinion of it. I took a sip, set the beer down and explained that I thought it was shite.
We walked out of the bar and left the beers sitting on the counter. I don’t think the barman knew what hit him. We legged it, laughing our heads off to the Hofbrauhaus. This was supposed to be the best one in all of Europe. There was a fantastic atmosphere. The place was heaving with people and a full sized German oompah band was giving it some wellie on the stage. The beer was served in huge litre steins and was very nice indeed. We were told that no one had ever managed to steal one of the steins from the Berlin Hofbrauhaus so of course the challenge for the evening had been issued. Quite close to us was a table full of young men who looked to us like football hooligans.
Turns out they were members of the French Foreign Legion so we got together for an evening of entente cordiale. If we had met them an hour or two before that might have proved to be an interesting evening drinking Irish Beer in Berlin with some French chaps. They were good fun and we had an excellent evening. I managed to snag a stein from the Hofbrauhaus and still have it with me today however I doubt very much if I could drink half a dozen steins of strong German beer these days. Waking up with a hangover the morning of a rugby match was quite common so I doubt very much if any player in the competition was on top form that day.
We were put out of the competition in our first match by RAF Bruggen. Bruggen had fielded a side of excellent players. All of them represented the air force at rugby and were, as they say, as fit as a butchers dog. In a way we didn’t mind, we could stay by the main pitch, watch rugby and drink beer in the sunshine. For the final we saw RAF Gatow versus RAF Bruggen, the team that had put us out. Before the match the Bruggen chaps stayed out on the pitch, most of them were wearing official RAF kit, rubbing the fact that they were so good, in our faces. They were passing balls to each other but in a sort of show off way.
A few minutes before the match the Gatow team came out. They looked to be a heavy set bunch while the Bruggen fellows were young fit athletic types. The match started and once Gatow had the measure of Bruggen, experience began to take over. Yes Gatow were a heavy and slow menacing lot but they could tackle and the Bruggen guys didn’t like it. The Gatow guys would commit to a tackle and even if the Bruggen guy had passed the ball on he was still taken out. There wasn’t enough of a gap between the crunching tackle coming in to play and the ball being passed for it to be considered a foul. It was a brilliant demonstration of skill and experience against fitness. Gatow unsettled the Bruggen guys and won the competition.
That evening we experienced all the sights and enjoyed a thunderous party at the rugby club before taking the train the next day back to the West. In Monchengladbach, as we moved from one train to another, we found a kiosk selling Kokkinelli, our favourite free tipple from Cyprus. We had been filling up on wine on the train anyway so it would have been wrong not to buy some Kokkinelli. While waiting for our train someone spotted a busker and we all went over and joined in. Some of the guys went around the commuters and travellers collecting, while the more naturally gifted among us sang and danced. It must have been one of the best days of his busking career and we had fun too.