IT is unfortunate that traveling overseas seems to have a dangerous and negative aura about it these days. When in a foreign country, it is wise to do whatever one can in behalf of better relations. When in the military, the importance of this is paramount.
I spent much of 1969 living in a 20-man tent on the banks of the Rhine. To make weekend passes more enjoyable, I bought a folding bike from a soldier headed back to the States. One Saturday I went off pedaling through the German countryside, to explore the nearby towns of Dexheim, Nierstein, and Oppenheim.
As I rode along the streets, the residents of the villages were using old straw brooms and soapy water to keep the sidewalk and the street edges clean. Each resident had a specific area to care for, and it was up to him or her to do it. They accepted the responsibility with pride.
The tube in the back tire of the bike had a defective patch on it, and air began to leak out. The tire got mushy until the rim was bumping over the cobblestones.
I dismounted and pushed the bike for a mile or two, until I came to a Volkswagen garage. A mechanic must have noticed the lost look on my face, and he came over. I pointed to the tire.
``Kaput,'' I said.
``Yah, . . .'' replied the mechanic.
``Can you fix this?'' I asked.
``Nein sprecken English,'' he remarked.
``Tire kaput, . . .'' I said. I wondered if he could repair the tire but I couldn't find out. I didn't take German in school. I had French instead.
Several workers in the garage had gathered, watching me do pantomime in the middle of the yard. I was not getting the message across. What I was getting was a whole lot of laughs.
After a while I was ready to give up. I did have a working knowledge of French. Perhaps somebody here would understand me. So I mixed words a little.
``La bicyclette est tr`es kaput. . . .''
There was a huge explosion of laughter all around. I had highlighted their afternoon. But the residents of Oppenheim had clearly won. The tire did not get fixed that day. There was a walk of many kilometers back to the river camp.
The folding bicycle went down on record as my worst investment. Each time I went into town something went wrong with it. I sold it to a platoon sergeant who gave it to his son. I hope he had a better time with it than I did.
While visiting Paris for nine days, I fared a little better. In my hotel room I rehearsed a breakfast order, en franais, some 50 times. With my new confidence I strolled down to a corner caf'e and delivered the order without a pause or stutter. The waiter was very proud, and his face beamed with admiration.
``That is very good,'' he spoke plainly with no accent at all.
The best you can do is all you can do.