Three unlikely pals made their way north in a post-World War II Volkswagon that struggled to keep pace with traffic on the German Autobahn.
Traffic sped past in the fast lane so quickly it was nearly impossible to tell one make of car from another. Even plodding along in the slow lane, impatient motorists came upon the travelers quickly, honking their horns as they sped past.
Back home, folks were enjoying Labor Day Weekend, the last three-day weekend of the year. In Germany, however, it was just another weekend.
The three pals included myself and my Army pal John Moon, who still lives in his hometown of Minneapolis, along with German friend Manfred Lachner. Having ended up in Nuremberg, Germany, I had searched – and found, thanks to help from my mother back in Iowa – my Swedish ancestors.
I had arranged to meet my relatives and John, who had one of the few automobiles in the unit, said he’d drive me because he’d like to visit Sweden, too. Manfred, whom we’d both met just a few months before, asked to go along, noting that “it’s my vacation, I earned it” when asked how he could leave his wife Uschi and two young daughters behind.
We pulled out of Nuremberg quite early that Friday morning, Sept. 1, 1967, driving north. Stopping along the way to visit a friend of Manfred’s in Hamburg, it was late afternoon by the time we drove onto the ferry to cross from Germany into Denmark and early evening by the time we reached Copenhagen, our destination for the first day on the road.
In Copenhagen, the three of us took the obligatory photo with the famed Mermaid in the background and visited Tivoli for a few hours of fun. After John and I had seen our first Russian ship in the harbor – the big CCCP emblazoned on the side – we decided that, perhaps, we’d dare visit a couple of Copenhagen watering holes near the port, even though they were known to be rough and tumble joints.
After a fitful night’s sleep, the three of us again hit the road early on Saturday, drove north to our next ferry, which took us to Sweden.
Declaring that we had no contraband, we passed through customs quickly with the admonition to “remember, today is the last day of left-hand traffic in Sweden; tomorrow we switch to right-side traffic.”
“Yeah, yeah,” John said, driving off the ferry directly into oncoming traffic. He quickly drove to the left side and we headed north to Gothenburg, our next overnight stop.
Sunday morning we awoke to right-hand traffic in Sweden and a nationwide 35-mile-per-hour speed limit. We still had nearly 300 miles to go and, at 35, it would take most of the day. Needless to say, we didn’t observe the speed limit as we headed north. Each time we were stopped by the Swedish Highway Patrol – it occurred three times – we were admonished to “slow down” and sent on our way.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon we arrived at our destination – the small community of Insjon in the Swedish Province of Dalacarlia, where a bevy of relatives awaited our arrival. The Swedish flag was raised in our honor and we spent a glorious week there.
Even my friends, John and Manfred, enjoyed our brief stay with my father’s cousin and her family. In fact, it was such a wonderful time I was invited back for Christmas and New Year’s, and gladly accepted. Later, it was determined that when I was released from the Army in April of 1968, I would return to Sweden, spend the summer working and playing baseball for a nearby team in Leksand.
John and I, although we rarely visit these days, remain friends; Manfred and Uschi have become dear friends who have visited us here in America and have hosted my wife Judy and I on occasion in Germany.
Although, my time in the military was an otherwise dismal period, being sent to Germany was a blessing in disguise.
Even the old Volkswagon seemed to gain some new pep on the trip back that weekend.
(Bill Haglund is a writer with Stephens Media.)