Dusseldorf, West Germany
OLD Joe Jakel ties his palomino to the split-rail fence outside the Longhorn Hotel, clanks his spurs, dusts his chaps, and strides through swinging doors. ''Wo sind alle? (Where is everybody?)'' he asks, tossing his 10-gallon hat onto a rack in the corner.
''Sie ritten da lang, Podner (They went thatta way, pardner),'' chuckles a gang of latter-day sodbusters in boots, cowskin vests, and bandannas.
German cinema's equivalent of the spaghetti western? Hardly. This is real life for over 3,000 members of West Germany's Western Bund.
An umbrella organization for 120 separate Wild West clubs sprinkled from Hamburg to Munich, the Western Bund will powwow secretly in the Bavarian Alps near Munich next month. For one week, Germans dressed as loinclothed Indians will dance around campfires and gigantic tepees and practice tomahawk throwing. Bowlegged broncobusters will practice lariat tossing, quick-drawing with six-guns, and knife throwing. Union Army cavalrymen will hobnob with those dressed like Confederates. Lunching on wurst (instead of baked beans), they'll relive the American frontier days in full dress.
cc23p6 Hans (Old Joe) Jakel, the group's grand marshal for the past 25 years, will help keep press and public at bay. ''These are not performances,'' he says. ''We are very serious here.''
Most are very serious indeed. Mr. Jakel, a former machinist in Cologne, has studied America's West closely for over 30 years. He owns genuine Oklahoma Territory marshals' badges, chaps, spurs, a vest, and a 37-piece gun collection - and can tell you the date of Wild Bill Hickok's first lovers' spat with his girlfriend (according to legend), Calamity Jane.
Cofounder Max Oliv, raised on translations of James Fennimore Cooper, was so enraptured by the Western paintings of George Bellows, George Catlin, Georgia O'Keeffe, and others that he became a established painter of Old West scenes himself.
At the less infatuated end of the totem pole, of course, are others who join for the mere fun of trading a present-day existence for the romance of the American frontier past - at least on weeknights and weekends.
It all began in the 1890s, when Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show toured with great success here. At the same time, German writer Karl May began turning out romanticized dime novels about the United States frontier he had never seen.
Since then, the effects of May's books - which have continued to sell in the millions - have been bolstered by more accurate translations of Zane Grey, Cooper, and (more recently) Louis L'Amour.
Not long after Buffalo Bill left, the first club was founded in Munich in 1912. Hollywood filled the gap left in the imagination by his absence, and more clubs were born. Today, inspired in the last two decades by American serials - from ''Gunsmoke'' and ''The Virginian'' to ''Bonanza'' and ''Maverick,'' the last two of which still run weekly on television here - Wild West clubs appear to have achieved permanence. They are attracting growing numbers of German youth , middle-aged family men and women, and those over 50.
''Most of the clubs study some aspect of American history,'' says Mr. Oliv. ''But no two are the same. Some study the Civil War, others just pioneers. Some cowboys, others just Indians.''
Many have ranches - like the five-acre ''Longhorn'' farm near Dusseldorf - where the 50-or-so members bunk, ride horses, and work on everything from saddles to six-shooters nearly every weekend and whenever possible during the week. Many bring their wives, who cook, sew articles of Western clothing, and organize such social activities as square-dancing. Children help in numerous tasks, from feeding horses to cleaning the bunkhouse.
The appeal, it seems, is twofold: a fascination with the wild, wide-open frontier that Germany never had, and a familial interest in following the exploits of German ancestors who left the old country for the unexplored reaches of the new continent.
''Germany, in comparison to America, is small and was split into even smaller territories that had - through history - very authoritarian rulers,'' explains Jakel, who cofounded Western Bund. ''Suddenly, when people went to America, they found they could lead an entirely different life. All of a sudden you could do whatever you wanted. There was unlimited land and resources, uninhabited except for Indians, wild horses, and buffalo. It was a kind of transatlantic culture shock.''
Western Bund member Peter Kircher, an automobile painter for the German post office, says the topic of the American West is so broad that no one person has a solid grip on it. ''It's wonderful to get together with others who love the same things,'' he says. ''We share what we've learned from books and our contacts in America,'' he says.
On a drizzly day in Cologne, his club organized a square dance for the public at a local shopping center. The caller, dressed like a fur trapper, is barking out ''do-si-dos'' and ''swing your partners'' in perfect English. Women (nearly 1,000 are members) are decked in floor-length, calico prairie skirts. The men, complete with coonskin caps, look like modern-day Daniel Boones and Davy Crocketts. Some are dressed as Union soldiers.
Breathing hard after an allemande left, Herman Franken, a stout, mustachioed welder with a broad-brimmed Union cavalry hat, reminds his inquirer that 40 percent of those fighting in the American Civil War were Germans.
''It's very natural that we Germans would want to follow up on our ancestors who went to the US - our histories are very closely entwined,'' he says. Since age 12, his love has been the US cavalry. Five years ago, he joined an outfit called the US Cavalry in Munich.
Back at his apartment in Cologne, the white-haired Jakel is eager to enumerate the myths of the old West.
''There were probably never fast-draw gunfights in the streets,'' he says. ''The guns were too heavy and the barrels were far too long to draw fast,'' he says. ''And they were far too inaccurate,'' he says, picking up a 9-shot, 44 -caliber, 1876 Remington. ''The bullets in this deviated up to three-fourths of a millimeter.''
Producing a genuine Indian tomahawk, complete with a leather loop that fitted snugly around the wrist, he noted that ''Indians never threw their tomahawks. ''They were his weapon of last resort.'' And, he says, cowboys probably never said, ''Sie ritten da lang,'' or, ''Streck die Hande sum Himmel (Reach for the sky).''
The annual gathering of clubs from across the country is the most eagerly awaited event of the year. This year, full-blooded Cheyenne River Sioux from North and South Dakota are expected to lend a dash of authenticity.
''Although there will be horseback riding,'' says Mr. Oliv, ''there will be no steer roping,'' since it is outlawed by the German equivalent of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The same organization prevents the use of spurs while riding.
Touring the Longhorn Ranch, the writer is greeted by a saddle-toting man in a fur jacket.
''Where are you from in America?'' he asks. ''Boston,'' comes the reply. ''Bah. New York, Boston. That's not America,'' he says. ''Colorado, Wyoming. That's America.''