One of the more common vehicles one would see on the streets of West Berlin in the late 1960s was the tank, a necessary vehicle for the gators to play their war games in the Grunewald. However, the many encounters one had with these behemoths on the highways and byways of Berlin – as I explain in my post of April 10, 2013 – weren’t very pleasant. Of course, honking to get them to move over didn’t work.
But that was a gator phenomenon. The rest of us just sought anything to get around – one ride on German buses in the summertime was enough to convince me that walking was preferable – but that’s a story for another time. So it wasn’t long before I got my first vehicle – a Volkswagen bus. It wasn’t much to look at, so I decided to decorate it in a way that pleased me and I knew would be a thorn in the side of gator treads – with flowers. (See the excerpt from McCurry’s War in this blog.)
It would be hard if not impossible to find buses with flowers painted on them in West Berlin. Gators wouldn’t be caught dead even riding in such a vehicle, and Germans didn’t have much of a sense of humor. This meant it would be hard to keep track of me. Considering the run-ins I had with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division, this visibility would often serve me well.
It wasn’t long, however, before I got caught up in of the major pastime among GIs in the late 60s – scouting through the assortment of old roadsters – particularly the MGs and Austin Healeys – fixing them up. With the help of a German friend – Reinhard Nicklaus – I located a 1936 BMW that ran and was in half decent condition. With the help of another friend, we got it running real well and then started on the body (the leather interior was in almost perfect shape). Through an acquaintance of my German friend, we had all the chrome re-chromed and the car repainted.
We had some fun times in that car. It had an electric starter, but it also had a crank as an alternative means to get it started. (I suspect that this was because northern Germany, particularly in Berlin, is so brutally cold in winter that the electric starters of 1936 weren’t always up to the task.)
We would head up to the Kurfürstendamm – or Ku’damm for short – and do some window shopping. The Ku’damm was sort of like West Berlin’s 5th Avenue. When we returned to our vehicle, which inevitably drew the attention of passersby, we would casually pull out the manual crank, which was strapped along the side and about four and a half feet long, insert it in the slot just above the front bumper and start cranking. By the time it started we had a big crowd.
I shipped it back to the U.S. in 1969. My father picked it up for me and often talked about the two pages of notes I sent him on the care and feeding of the vehicle. I can picture him, though, driving back from the port near Newark with his pipe in his mouth and his arm resting on the door. I wish I had sent him a driving coat and hat.
I wasn’t able to keep it long. It had the original equipment, including mechanical arms that flipped out of the side to indicate a turn. My option in the States was to get antique plates – that were only valid during daylight hours – or make adjustments that would have destroyed its value. I tried leaving it in my parents driveway while working in Washington, but it was taking a beating out in the weather. When I got out of the Army, I sold it to a collector in Norristown and used the money to buy new suits for my first civilian job.