Remember Nancy Drew? The Hardy Boys? These were series of books about amateur teen-aged detectives and their remarkable ability to help the locals solve crimes. Those stories filled many rainy winter nights for me with myself (in my imagination) in the title role. Later, I graduated to Sherlock Holmes. (He never said, “Elementary, my dear Watson”, by the way). Then, I progressed to Agatha Christie, famous for too many red herrings and not enough pertinent information. The appeal for me was to figure out “who did it” before the book revealed it.
Life seldom afforded me opportunities to “amateur sleuth”, but I did get some practice sessions over the years. The scene: the suspect/witness is seated on a chair facing me. I pace a few times back and forth. “Now, let’s return to the events of last night in the order that they happened. When was the last time you remember seeing the missing—shoe?” The suspect stares at me, swinging a naked foot in a strange rhythm. You get the picture!
We were living in Erlangen, Germany at Ferris Barracks.
Our quarters were one side of a small duplex in the post housing area. It was not one of the stand-alone grander houses that most brigade commanders have but we didn’t mind. Though the kaserne had been in U.S. hands for 50 years, the commander had always lived in a rental house somewhere else. The time frame for our being there was after Desert Storm and the U.S. Army Europe was in a flux, a period of realignment and revision. When we arrived, we were happy to live more humbly in exchange for being closer to the excellent battalion commanders and brigade staff with whom we were privileged to serve. Having the battalion commanders’ wives so close by afforded us a chance to spend more time together and we were in the habit of taking an early walk together as a traveling staff meeting. That day, the morning dawned with promise of sun and warmth. We set off. This particular day was not a day when I was looking for a crime to solve. No matter: the crime was looking for me.
Behind our duplex was a small fenced yard. Beyond our yard was a large open field, about the size of 2 football fields. It belonged to the American post but was seldom used for anything, because the training area just north of it was 8800 acres. Since it was an armor post, most of the action took place in the larger area where the tanks could maneuver and fire, away from the city and housing area. Strangely, this smaller field behind our yard seemed to be our version of Area 51.
To the left of our German Area 51 field, there was a wide gravel path that constituted our route.
After a 10-minute walk on it, the path took a 90 degree turn to the left. This wider path was frequented by the local Germans. It was a short cut for them from one of the main thoroughfares to the university and businesses on that side of the city. Many rode bikes but there were also walkers who had disembarked from the closest bus stop. This practice was technically trespassing but was generally tolerated as a “steam control” factor. The relationship between the American Army and the local liberal politicians and university was rather frosty, as the mayor had been lobbying for some time to get rid of us. In fact, sometimes soldiers training close to the path had been subjected to spitting and verbal abuse as the bicyclists went whizzing by. There was always plenty of people traffic there and this morning was no exception.
As our walking group turned that corner, we began to hear a plaintive, repetitive cry. We paused and listened as the sound became louder. Clearly, it was a human call. “Helfen Mir! Helfen Mir!” You probably figured out that the English translation is, “Help Me!” We rushed to find the source. There was a break in the foliage around the field and we turned into the break in the greenery. Now, in that area, the army had built a modified obstacle course with chin up bars, wooden balance beams and the adult equivalent of a jungle gym.
There before us was a young man, stripped to his underwear, hanging by his outstretched arms from the climbing apparatus. Clearly weak and possibly in shock, his head and body were limp. Two of us took off running (pre cell phones, remember) to summon the medics and MPs. The two remaining (I was one) decided to try to get him down. He was very slight, and we thought we could manage to get him to the ground if we could get him loose.
Since I was too short to be able to reach his core to lift him down safely, I was the one who climbed up the back of the jungle gym to see if I could free his hands. The other wife with me was much taller and stronger and thought she could manage to hold him, if I got him free, until I could climb back down and help her carry him to the grass. When I made it to the top, I thought if I could get a little slack in the rope binding his arms, I could slip his hands through and free him. My larger walking friend was able to lift him enough for me to get one hand out. Then, we repeated the “lift” for the other hand. We were then able to gently place him on the grass next to the jungle gym. We covered him with our jackets. By then, we could hear the medics and MPs coming. He was conscious and responsive. The medics and MPs took over, questioned us about the sequence of events, and asked us to stay.
While we were waiting, I surveyed all the area. What was this about? Were there others? As often happens in times of adrenaline rush, the mind photographs everything in hyper detail. I still remember the scene clearly. As the young man was being loaded on the stretcher, one of the MPs said, “He does not want to go to the hospital”, but they took him, anyway. Since we had no hospital on the post, he was taken to the closest German hospital and a report was filed with the local police because he was clearly not an American.
We were allowed to leave and walked back to our homes. A couple of hours later, my doorbell rang. When I opened the door, there stood a German police detective. He flashed his badge, just like in the movies and asked me to accompany him along with the other wives to the scene of the Hanging Man. Of course, I did. He spoke excellent English, so communication was easy. We were there quite some time. He asked me many questions about what I had seen. He then told me the young man had said he was attacked and robbed by a group of American soldiers. I said, “That’s curious! If he was robbed, it was by the neatest, most considerate ‘thief’ I can imagine.” He lifted his brows. In my “photographing” of the scene, which was still pretty much intact minus the ‘victim‘, I remembered seeing by the bushes that formed the edge of the perimeter a very neat stack comprised of carefully folded clothing, paired shoes, a backpack and glasses folded on top. It was still there. I pointed to it, and said, “What thief, especially one who would assault him like that, would have done that?”
The detective gave me a wry smile and then asked me to recall in detail the configuration of the rope that bound the young man to the apparatus. I reenacted my climb and answered him as I remembered what I had to do to loosen the rope. The other wives were likewise interviewed.
That afternoon, I had to be in Wurzburg at Division Headquarters for a ceremony and dinner.
Dick had flown up early that morning and I was to join him later in the day. In Germany, the brigades are scattered across the region and being at the Division Headquarters always involved travel. I got in the car after lunch and headed to Wurzburg, replaying the morning’s events over and over in my mind.
After all the formalities, the brigade wives would usually gather and chat. It was the only time we really saw each other. As I was “catching up” with their news, the Division Provost Marshal came up to me. I knew him from other social times. I smiled and said, “What’s up?” He replied, “I was reviewing the police reports from this morning and you were on it. Sounds like you had an exciting morning! And, by the way, the German detective there was very impressed with your observation skills.” I laughed and asked him if he knew anything about the condition of the young man and the circumstances that had placed him on the brigade’s obstacle course. He said that it was in the hands of the German police now and he did not have the report yet. That night, on my drive back home, I was concerned about the Hanging Man’s accusation. Would this constitute another anti-American headline in the local paper, a very public investigation and lots of time-consuming trouble for my husband?
Two days passed before I received yet another visit from the German detective. As he stood in my doorway, I looked at him curiously. He smiled and said, “I wanted you to know the result of our investigation. You were right that the scene of the crime revealed some contradictions in the young man’s statement. He is a Russian exchange student at the local university. As we continued to press him about the evidence at the scene, he confessed to what really happened: he had become involved with another student – a German girl – who had decided to end their relationship. He then plotted a way to try to regain her “love”. If he became a victim, especially of the Americans, he thought she would be so sympathetic, she would rush to his side.
He scouted a location close by the path, figuring he would not hang there long since it was so well-frequented by the German locals. Shortly before dawn, he crept into the area. He stripped down to his underwear (it resembled a lavender speedo, I might add. I told you I remember details), folded his clothes, paired his shoes, stacked them neatly with his backpack and glasses, climbed to the top of the “jungle gym” and looped the tied rope around his wrists. Once he heard people passing, he would begin his cries and let his legs fall to “lock” the rope in place. When he was discovered, he would blame American soldiers and be whisked off by the locals to a sympathetic political climate, quick to blame.
But no Germans stopped, though his cries were clear and easily heard. Considering his condition, his cries had been going on for some time. Many locals had passed within a few yards of him. The irony of the whole plan was that the Americans were to be blamed and villainized when the truth was the Americans had proved to be the rescuers and saviors. Remember, this was Europe in 1992.