Commentary by Ward Degler
If I had not lived there when I did, my feelings about October might be different. That goes for the other 11 months, too, but October stands out.
I spent the better part of two years in Germany in 1955 and 1956. The country was barely a decade out of the throes of World War II, and the pace of reconstruction was limping slowly along.
Large sections of Frankfurt, Hamburg and Heidelberg were still barricaded and large piles of rubble lay where centuries-old buildings had once stood. In the rural areas there was less destruction, but abandoned war equipment – halftracks, burned-out tanks and German staff cars – gathered rust in empty lots and neglected fields.
The people were eager to put the memories of conflict behind them as soon as possible, and a forced sense of gaiety pervaded the streets, gasthauses and theaters. The revelry reached a crescendo across the land in October. The barmaids tied on their aprons, the barkeeps polished up the beer steins and the accordion players dusted off their bellows and put on their lederhosen. The beer kegs were full, the weather was clear and crisp and everybody was ready for Oktoberfest!
The festival in our part of the Rhine valley was in the resort town of Bad Kreuznach. By car, an hour’s drive, or a three-hour bump-and-go ride on the local railroad. Even so, pretty much everybody rode the train. Local wisdom held that only the heartiest and most reckless of souls could expect to maneuver the hills and curves of central Germany after downing a half-dozen steins of high-octane Deutsch brew.
Besides, as much fun as the music, dancing and beer were at the festival, the real party was on the ride home. Everybody boarded the train with at least one full stein and probably a pocket full of sausages.
The first order of business as the train lurched into motion was toasting. Everyone toasted everyone else. The train made at least a dozen stops from Bad Kreuznach to the end of the line, each one allowing enough time for folks to disembark, refill their steins and reboard.
Dancing is impossible on a bumpy train, but the Oktoberfest crowd made up for it with a snake dance through all nine cars, from one end to the other and back again. At one point, somebody actually fell off the platform on the last car and the train was brought to an emergency stop until the lost passenger was retrieved, dusted off and given a fresh stein.
It was about three hours into the festivities when my buddies and I discovered we were on the wrong train, going in the wrong direction. All was not lost, however. They still served beer at the stops all the way back to Bad Kreuznach.