In December of that year, I signed up to attend a two week Winter Warfare Exercise to be held in Bavaria. In the military that is a euphemism for a ski-ing vacation.
About 75 of us were trucked down to a small town not far from Fussen where King Ludwig’s castle sits at Neuschwanstein. Most of us had never skied before so we were all kitted out with boots, gloves and goggles and driven to the slopes for our first lesson. As with everything else, some were more ‘natural’ than others and the first couple of days was quite hilarious with people falling all over the place and crashing into one another. I took to it instantly; it satisfied my need for speed and my reflexes were so fast that I rarely fell.
On about the third day, we had been skiing on the North slopes. To get back to the South side where the restaurant and facilities were, involved going hell for leather down the slope, crossing a small narrow wooden bridge and hoping that momentum would carry you part of the way up the hill to the restaurant as it was a fairly steep climb. The Instructors had us all in a line and waiting for their command. “Go’ , one said and 75 squaddies on skis started off hoping to be the first across the bridge. The reason that everybody wanted to be first across was that the bridge was only wide enough for 5 people and a traffic jam was bound to ensue. The eight or so best skiers (of which I was one) were down the hill and almost to the restaurant before the others really started to move. We turned around and fell about laughing as the rest collided, in a solid mass of flying skis, falling bodies and much cursing, at the entrance to the bridge.
That night my ankle started to ache; it was one of those fibrous pains that just kept flaring up and it was extremely uncomfortable. The only thing that ever worked on them was some of the heat balm that you would rub onto the affected area and which would increase the circulation. One of the instructors had some and lent it to me. He didn’t bother to warn me that it was extremely strong and I smeared it on liberally. Within ten minutes my ankle felt that it was on fire and nothing would stop the balm working; soap didn’t get it off, ice didn’t help for more than a minute or two and the only thing that made the pain bearable was soaking it in water. I spent the entire night half in and half out of a sleeping bag with the offending leg in a bucket of fire water.
The following morning had us ready for skiing only to find that the truck wouldn’t start. We were sent off to walk to the ski slope which was about a mile away. We were ‘geared’ up with our skis slung over our shoulders and were trudging down the road when the sound of a blaring horn caused us to move to the side. Moments later a Triumph Spitfire sports car, owned by one of the instructors, came racing by at about 60 mph. Skiing behind it, on ropes attached to the rear bumper, were the other five instructors.
One of the instructors was a 19 year old from an infantry regiment. His name was Spider Webb and he was a brilliant skier. He could ski with one leg in the air as well as most people could ski with two and was very flashy, constantly doing moves that were bound to draw attention to him.
One lunchtime we were sitting on the deck of the restaurant having a beer or two when we spotted Spider hurtling down the slope. To the immediate left of the restaurant was the car park which was full of parked cars, most of which several inches of snow on the roof. Spider, with one leg up in the air, went into a late high speed stop intended to throw snow all over us. Unfortunately he mistimed it and, instead of stopping as planned, went flying into the car park where he landed, still on one leg, on the roof of a car. He stood there nonchalantly for a second or two and then fell between the two cars where we had to extricate him a few minutes later; that is, after we had finished our beer and ordered another one.
Half way down one of the slopes was a beautiful log cabin. The rear of the cabin was completely obscured by snow which had drifted down. On the roof were dozens of ski tracks which was extremely puzzling until we saw our instructors demonstrate how they got there; the maniacs skied down the slope as fast as they could, up onto the roof and used it as a launching pad for a ski jump. The vertical drop must have been about 80’. After watching this insanity for an hour, I decided that I had to try it!
Ten seconds later, common sense had prevailed and I ordered another coffee.
After 10 days of the two weeks, I had had enough and got permission to head back to my base in northern Germany, some 450 miles away. One of the instructors dropped me off at the entrance to the autobahn and I started to hitch, thinking that I would quickly get a ride. I was wrong, very wrong. Nobody would pick me up so I kept walking. It got darker and it got colder and there wasn’t even anywhere to stop, get coffee and ask people for a ride. That night, I ended up walking 42 miles in sub-zero temperatures. I was beyond exhaustion, and several times considered lying down for a nap, but knew that if I did, I would freeze to death. I kept going, just putting one foot in front of another. At 3am, I finally staggered into a rest stop and warmed up with several cups of hot soup. As truckers came in, I would ask where they were going, and if it was in my direction, ask for a ride. Eventually one kind man said yes and dropped me off, just a few miles from my base. It was the longest, most unpleasant night of my life, but there was one interesting side effect. For the next 40 years, I never felt the cold. In the middle of winter, I could go out wearing shorts and a t-shirt and be perfectly comfortable. Admittedly, most people seeing this, thought me deranged, so I didn’t do it often.
I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading or listening to this chapter as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and recording it.
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