I was a teenager when Uncle Sam paid my way for a three-year tour of duty in Germany. At first, everything seemed, well, foreign over there, but at time went on familiarity kicked in and I felt at home. That kind of familiarity did not breed contempt, though absence from my home in the states did make my heart grow fonder of it. I knew people who spent their whole enlistment bemoaning their decision to enlist. I got over that after basic training and actually enjoyed much of my time in the service.
In the states, baseball and sandlot football were our childhood sports. The rural people I met and grew to love in Germany played only one sport—soccer. They called it “foosball.” I don’t remember just how I became friends with Erich, Demeter, Wolfie, Joachim and the other guys down near Zell on the Mosel River. I do remember that I was quickly accepted into their circle of friends, which meant playing foosball with them on Sunday afternoons.
They were vineyard people, growing their crops on poles on the south side of the mountain. They had all the accouterments of farmers I had known in the states—barns, tractors, and so forth—with one addition that was unfamiliar to me: wine cellars. Each dwelling seemed to have one furnished with long rows of casks, labelled with the year the contents were deposited there. I remember seeing casks dated way back before my birth in some of those cellars.
But, back to foosball. Somehow the gang had flattened out a field near the peak of the mountain for a sports arena. The goals at each end were made of vineyard poles and fish nets and boundaries were marked with poles as well. I was a terrible player, but they did not seem to mind. I provided good amusement for them when I kicked at and missed the ball, falling flat on my American posterior. I got better as time went on, but those guys were downright magicians in their head, arm and foot dexterity.
Unlike sports organizations in the U.S., these individualistic vintners simply challenged other towns nearby and they met on more or less arbitrary schedules to compete. The team I was on won steadily until late one summer when they held an unofficial championship game against a little village across the river. For some reason—I will let you guess why—I never got off the bench during that game. My team lost by one goal and it was a downer. Erich, the biggest of my German teammates, took the loss very badly. He had missed a goal towards the end of the game and took all the blame for blowing the championship. My German was not very good, but I could tell his teammates were trying to tell him it was not his fault, each pointing out his own mistakes during the game.
I never saw a more altruistic group of people in my life. By nightfall, Erich was reconciled to the loss and everyone was jubilant and festive. We even went across the river to the victorious village and joined in their lively celebration. Their players embraced us and it was a happy evening.