It was 30 years ago and this time of year.
The year was 1977 and a young man whose only venture outside the United States was Mexico (twice), was about to land in Rhein Main AFB for a NATO exercise (REFORGER 77). From the moment I stepped off that Air Force cargo plane, I knew I had landed in a land that I felt a special connection to.
Because I knew some things about my roots and ancestry, Europe was to become one of the more cherished experiences I have ever had. To see where knights once roamed, kings and emperors once ruled, and where the continent had many times built itself back from ruins, was something many in my country will only read about.
My first experience was one that many tell me doesn't exist to any great degree any more. As I disembarked the big bird, the first thing I smelled was the noticeable odor of diesel exhaust, in the air. Once I got past that discovery and the concrete world of the Air Base, the next sight I got to experience was the autobahn that was to take us to the Mannheim area (which is probably known as E5 now). Every vehicle was traveling at different high rates of speeds, and they were a a good 1-2 feet behind the car in front.
As I watched the landscape unfold from one town/city into another, I couldn't help think that somehow, my government school had failed me and maybe (in some way) I had failed myself. Being a whiz at geography in school, I was amazed at something I had thought I missed. I knew about Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, Nuremberg, Bonn, Cologne, and some other large metro areas in West Germany. But I had never heard of Ausfahrt. And from every sign I could see, there as a road that led to Ausfahrt.
For six weeks I was able to see a world that had only existed in textbook pictures, spent time with the German and Dutch armies, viewed sights like the picturesque cathedral in Ulm, and mingled with the German people. I enjoyed the experience so much, I promptly went back to Ft. Riley and submitted paperwork to go back for permanent duty there. This was the first time I had seen what Europe had to offer and I was hooked, I had to have more.
A year later, I got it. Germany, France, Holland, and Spain were all on my itinerary for the two years I lived and worked there. It was truly a time when I was carefree and not bound by the responsibilities, I have today.
It is something that I shall not and cannot ever forget. In fact, I still dream about it at night. sometimes. It's a recurring dream, one that I am back in either, Frankfurt, Aschaffenburg, Wurzburg, or some other place I do not recognize. I'd call it a bit strange, but it has never has it left me with any negative feelings. Each dream always finds me feeling like it was good to get back and re-experience it all over again.
I seriously hope to visit again, someday. Until then, the memories are still vivid enough to carry me through.