Munich / Muenchen, Germany 1967
One night in jail is not a big deal. Hardly even memorable. However, my night in jail was a time of great self-awareness and reflection on the nature of man. Every man believes that given the right circumstances, he has the potential to be a hero; that he will deliberately and decisively choose to sacrifice his own personal safety for the sake of others. Fate provided me with just the right circumstances in the form of an encounter with the US Army Military Police, in Munich, Germany in the month of March,1967.
Chapter 1 Backpacking in Europe
Story-teller that I am, I feel compelled to give you a little background and historical perspective to this life-changing event.
In 1966, I decided to have a European adventure. I was a 19 year-old who, after flunking out of first year Engineering, had worked for a year as penance for wasting my father’s hard earned money. Recognizing that I was still too immature to pursue post high school education successfully, I felt a need for a personal quest to broaden my horizons. In truth, I really wanted to make my life more interesting.
Backpacking and hitchhiking in Europe had become a popular adventure in the 1960’s. The world was becoming a global village. Almost a decade earlier, my older brother Doug left Saskatchewan for his personal quest on the West Coast of Canada. In my day, the Beatles were pulling me in another direction. I learned that a friend, Andre Ouellette, was also planning a trip to Europe. Andre was a teacher, 3 years my senior. He and I both grew up in Rosetown, Saskatchewan and knew each other through sports, as kids do in small towns. We decided to tour Europe together.
In July 1966, we crossed the Atlantic on an 11,000 ton passenger ship which sailed out of New York. This would be an unusual choice in the 21st Century, when everyone travels by air. But Andre and I had nothing but time. So after a few days in the bustle of New York City, we enjoyed 10 days on a very social cruise to the port of Southampton, England.
We went directly to the exciting city of London. Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and the trendy Soho district with its pubs, clubs and mod fashion, were suddenly real places, and we were living the dream.
Next we spent some time in Paris. Andre got to try out his French Canadian mother tongue, and I struggled with my four-year high school non proficiency French. Influence by other guests of the Youth Hostel, our cultural interests focus more on the seamy nightlife of the Pigalle area than on the art museums, the Eiffel Tower, or Versailles. But my life was becoming more interesting.
As good Canadian beer drinking boys, Andre and I were destined to make our way to Germany. Our first stop was Munich. We were so impressed with Bavarian beer, and the raucous atmosphere of the Munich beer halls, that we invested considerable time and effort in finding jobs to extend our stay. That is how we were introduced to the United States Army.
Chapter 2 Life on a Military Base
In the 1960’s the United States of America had a significant military presence in Munich, including draftees who were fortunate to draw the Munich straw, avoiding the War in Vietnam. We learned that the US Army was hiring “foreigners” like us as casual labor to work in their commissary, the equivalent of a supermarket for the military and their families.
Getting hired was a little tricky. The US Army told us we needed a German work visa before they hire us. The German Government told us we needed an employment contract before they could issue our work permits. After going back and forth from offices of the Army and the Reichstag, we finally ended up with jobs. Hence I became a “semi-skilled meat-cutter”.
I really had no meat-cutting skills at all, but that was my job title. I mostly wrapped and priced the meat that was cut by two German butchers, and an African American butcher, Joseph, who had retired from the US Army. Joseph was a jovial fellow, and easy to work for. During his tour in Germany he fell in love with a German woman, and chose to stay and raise his family in Munich.
The two German butchers were also very interesting. They hated each other because one had been a member of Hitler’s Gestapo during the war and the other had been a German foot soldier who was very proud of his more honorable war record. Ironically the Gestapo guy, Otto, was a very sweet old man, while the honorable one, Hans, was kind of an asshole. But I digress.
The significance of our work at the commissary, is that for three months Andre and I lived on the military base, above the military housing barracks, in “special” quarters on the attic floor. It was a good gig – modest pay with a free room. The international employees of the US Army who were housed in the barracks, were an interesting assortment of backpackers whose common language was English.
Our main social hangout was a neighborhood pub, which in Germany is called a Gasthaus, or Guest House. There we would eat, drink and be merry on a regular basis, playing cards, listening to music and swapping stories. We were a close-knit group, a transient band of foreigners, and traveling the world was a bonding passion. That and drinking beer. The Gasthaus was run by Frau Schlegel and her husband Herr Schlegel. They were like a Mom and Poppa to our family.
Chapter 3 The Protagonist of the Story
I may have inadvertently led you to believe that I, Norm Flach, am the protagonist of this story. For that, I apologize. As narrator, I am describing the events of the story from my perspective, and my main interest in the story lies in how these events affected me personally. In that sense, I am indeed the most important and most interesting character in the story. However, there is a story within the story, that has a real protagonist, as well as an antagonist, and an exciting plot full of conflict and suspense, and a universal theme of good versus evil.
This protagonist is not even one of my community of “foreigners” living in the military housing barracks. He was however, a member of our Guest House community, and would become a main character in the story of my night in jail. His name was Bruce Lenny.
Bruce was my age, a young kid from New York, and he had not been drafted into the army. I have no idea why he was living in Munich. It never occurred to me to ask him. He did find a welcoming group of friends in our Neighborhood Gasthaus, and he was there, like us, almost every night.
Bruce was a brilliant intellectual who had read everything. He was particularly articulate in expressing his opinions, and he tended to hold opinions on all topics. You would never accuse Bruce of being diplomatic or overly sensitive; for example he frequently berated me for making stupid bids in bridge. I could count on Bruce to offer me insights into all kinds of flaws in my own character. However, we had a sort of friendship. I admired Bruce for his intelligence, his political insights, and his sardonic wit. We shared a friendship group, and we knew how to have a good time.
After three months of working at the army commissary, Andre and I were restless for more travel. It was November 1966, and winter was coming to Munich. We planned a three-month tour of Southern Europe from Istanbul to the Rock of Gibraltar. We bought a used Volkswagen Beetle to expedite the adventure. My first car! I could regale you with stories of our misadventures, but I fear I would never get back to Munich. Therefore, let us press on.
We came back to Munich in February 1967. Our plan was to sell our trusty Beetle, after which Andre would head back to Canada to resume his teaching career. Through our travels, I had become profoundly aware of my own ignorance, and Istanbul had given me a taste of Asia. I decided to continue traveling with a loose agenda that included working on a Kibbutz (communal farm) in Israel. But that’s another story.
When we returned to Munich, many of our friends, including Bruce, were still sitting in our favorite Gasthaus. Technically, we no longer had access to our former housing in Munich, but friends who were still working on the base offered to put us up for a few days, before we moved on. This was common practice in the military housing, so it never would have occurred to us that anyone could deem this as trespassing, let alone a punishable offense. And in fact, there was only one person who could.
Chapter 4 The Antagonist of the Story
I don’t remember his name, rank, or serial number, but he was a large man with a significant rank in the Military Police. I think he had undercover detective status because he was not in uniform. Mostly he was large. For the purposes of this story, I will call him Major Big.
The story of Major Big begins while Andre and I were innocently experiencing adventures in Vienna, Istanbul, Athens, Mykonos, Venice, Florence, Rome, Sardinia, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Gibraltar, and other exotic locales. Meanwhile back in Munich, Major Big was busy running surveillance on the patrons of our little Gasthaus. Long before the War on Terror was declared, Major Big was deeply devoted to eliminating potential threats to the American way of life. Within the walls of that little beer sanctuary, Major Big detected such a potential threat.
One of the patrons of the Gasthaus was a fellow that I never met. He may remain nameless because, like me, he is a minor character in the story. His role however is significant in establishing the conflict between the protagonist – Bruce, and the antagonist – Major Big. The unnamed patron was a war protester. He objected to the presence of the American military in Vietnam. He wore an old military jacket on which he had printed – “The US in Vietnam = Hitler in Poland” – or words to that effect. Certainly the words on the jacket had a major effect on Major Big.
As the story was told to me, Major Big pulled up a chair across the table from the objectionable slogan and began an informal interrogation. Since the protester spoke limited English, Major Big was frustrated in his attempt to expose and eliminate the enemy. Enter Bruce, whose command of the English language proved equally frustrating for Major Big. Bruce also objected to the presence of the American military in Vietnam, and happily engaged Major Big in debate. Suddenly, Major Big threw himself back in his chair, slapped his meaty palms on the table, looked over the crowd with contempt, and exclaimed, “What a load of scum!”
The pregnant pause that followed seemed to mark the end of the debate. However, Bruce was not one to allow his opponent to have the last word. Before Major Big got out the door, Bruce stabbed him with a retort that would ultimately land me in jail.
Now to understand the significance of Bruce’s retort, you may need a little more background. Bruce is Jewish. The words on the jacket equating the US military in Vietnam to the atrocities of fascist government of Nazi Germany had profound meaning for Bruce. Bruce had visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. The history of Dachau and the Nazi Extermination Camp in Auschwitz were well known to both Bruce and Major Big.
In an attempt to help Major Big understand Bruce’s political perspective, Bruce said: Do not forget, sir, Dachau is memorial, not a monument!
Chapter 5 Norm’s Role in the Conflict
You, dear reader, are probably wondering:
“Norm, how could an argument in your absence result in your imprisonment?”
It is mind boggling. Not only was I not present for the incident, but no crime was committed. Furthermore, the US military had no jurisdiction over me, and the German police had no interest in the political debate between Bruce and Major Big. So how could I end up in a German prison cell? The answer to this perplexing question lies in Major Big’s tenacious obsession with getting even with his nemesis, Bruce Lenny.
Allow me to resume the story from our return to Munich. As previously stated, Andre and I reconnected with old friends at the Gasthaus, and were invited to stay with them in military housing. The attic rooms are small, so each of us was lodged with a different friend. The plot thickens on a Friday morning, on the military base.
A group of friends including Bruce had planned to spend the day together. In the days before cell phones and email, a lot of communication was by foot. Bruce was a guest of Jens Holmgren in a barracks near where I was staying with Richard Stark. Jens and Bruce arrived at Richard’s door to collect us, and we walked from that barracks block to pick up Andre and others in different blocks. As we left Richard’s room, we noticed a well-dressed young man, clearly not of our crowd, hanging about in the attic hallway. We did not figure out what he was doing there, but it did seem odd.
We were a group of ten when all were collected, and we went into the city to visit Hofbrau Haus and other favorite beer halls. Near a tram stop on our way home, we encountered some young local guys on the street who were singing a German drinking song. We broke out in “Yellow Submarine” and were delighted when they joined in. Ultimately we ended up at our Gasthaus to end the evening. Or at least what was supposed to be the end of the evening.
As we walked from the Gasthaus to the military housing, we were still singing and enjoying ourselves. Splitting up, Richard and I went to his place. You may have already figured out that the well-dressed man in the attic hallway was on a mission. It turns out that Captain Dapper, was Major Big’s right hand man. He had seen Bruce enter the building that morning, when Bruce came to collect Richard and I. He didn’t know where Bruce was staying, but to find Bruce he only needed to find one of the “illegals” staying in the military housing. By chance, I was the one. And this coincidence, dear reader, is how Norm became involved in the Munich arena of the War in Vietnam.
Chapter 6 Intimidation and the Badge of Courage
Richard and I were barely back in his room before there was a knock on the door. Unassuming Richard answered and greeted two plain clothes detectives, and I had my first sight of Major Big.
“You are Richard Stark?” the Major asked in an officious tone. “Yes,” replied Richard, “can I help you?”
Major Big looked around the room. Taking his time, he turned to me and said, “And who are you?” I gave my name. Major Big continued, “You know that trespassers are not allowed on the military base.” It was not a question, and I had no response. “I am afraid that you will have to come with me, Mr. Flach.”
Richard was wide-eyed as I was escorted out of the room, down the stairwell, and out of the building to a waiting Military Police car. I was seated beside Major Big in the back seat. Captain Dapper drove a short distance to the rear of the Cinema on the base. I had recently been to this Cinema to see a very bad Bob Hope / Phyllis Diller movie. On this occasion, the movie had long been over, and there were no witnesses anywhere in the vicinity.
We got out of the car and Major Big marched me to the rear of the building. He instructed me to place my hands against the wall and to spread my legs. As he frisked me he commented, “I like to think of my family at times like this.”
I was too scared to laugh at the corniness of his line. But I was amused by the implications of his phrase “at times like this.” Times when I am frisking dangerous criminals? Times when I am about to beat the shit out of some hippy dirtbag? I had no idea what he was going to do. Finally he played his trump card. “I am looking for Bruce Lenny. I know you know where he is. Are you going to show me where he is?”
So this was it. The moment of truth. “Good luck with that, asshole! You think I’m scared of you? My mother is scarier than you! You can take that big ugly face of yours and kiss my . . . . .”
All of these thoughts passed through my mind before I said, “Sure, I can show you where Bruce is.” Guess I was just not destined to be a hero.
Chapter 7 The Road to Jail
I guided Major Big and Captain Dapper to the attic room where Bruce was a “trespassing” guest. They took us both to the little Military Police Station that had a small cell waiting for us. Because Bruce was the target, they had no interest in locating Andre or the other trespassers.
Bruce was not at all upset with me for my betrayal. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the challenge of being arrested by Major Big. He particularly liked the story of my interrogation behind the Cinema. We were held in the small cell until noon on Saturday, at which point we were taken to the Munich City Prison and booked in on the charge of trespassing.
We were told we wouldn’t see a judge until Monday morning. The reason Bruce and I had been held at the Military Police Station for so long was to maximize our time in jail. The magistrates that work the Prison get the weekends off. This was a clever ruse; you have to give Major Big major points. Somehow Major Big managed to get Bruce into solitary confinement. I have no idea what he told the German authorities to swing that one, but even Bruce had to concede that it was nice touch.
I was put in the Gammler cell. This was a group cell for young German hippies in the 60’s. They were targeted by the authorities as druggies and riffraff who opposed the values of the working class. They were a friendly bunch, and several spoke English. They were curious about what brought this foreigner into their company, and when I explained, they all agreed it was a bullshit charge. I’m sure they said that to all the new inmates.
I spent all day and Saturday night with my new companions. The bed was a wooden slab with a basic mattress, like gym mat – pretty comfortable, and the gruel was edible, so all in all it was a pleasant stay. I slept well.
Sunday morning, a guard escorted me to see a magistrate, a very sophisticated and attractive woman who showed no sign of annoyance at having been called into work on her day off. Well, at least she wasn’t annoyed with me. She was however, clearly unimpressed with Major Big, and the US Army for involving the German judicial system in this trite game on a charge that was totally irrelevant to German law. She immediately dropped the charges and went home to her family. She even released the infamous Bruce Lenny!
We were greeted by at the prison gate by a smiling Frau Schlegel of the Gasthaus. She had telephoned the police to register a complaint about the harassment of her boys. By insisting that we see a judge, she shortened our jail term by at least 24 hours. Frau Schlegel drove us to the Gasthaus for lunch, where our friends were waiting to hear the story.
All in all, my incarceration did not really hurt me in any way. My hopes of ever becoming a bonafide hero in this lifetime were obliterated, but besides that – no harm done. It was an interesting cross-cultural experience that gave me a valuable life lesson. As a self declared anti-hero, I avoided the futile pursuit of a career as an astronaut, a fireman, a policeman, or Super Powered Avenger.
This is a true story. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Two names have not been changed – Andre Ouellette and Norm Flach. The name Bruce is real, but I don’t remember his last name. I wonder what ever happened to Bruce.