I grabbed my kitbag & stepped down from the bus into the rain. I was greeted by two, large metal gates & two large, non-metal soldiers. In a surprise to most (including my instructors) I had just survived an arduous year long basic training in the British Army, & just four days after my 18th birthday, I was now standing soggily to attention outside the entrance to my new ‘home’ – Napier Barracks in Dortmund, West Germany.
To begin with, I loved the adventure of squaddie life – work hard, play hard, that sort of thing, but after a while I started to feel a sense of imprisonment – my life was not my own. Although others revert to the time-honoured tradition of consuming vast amounts of alcohol to deal with this confinement, my personal form of escapism came in the form of ‘dawdling’.
At the weekend, if I wasn’t tasked with some tedious duty (like waitering-on in the Warrant Officers mess until 3 in the bloody morning), I would skedaddle out of camp & simply wander a mile or so up the road to the suburb of Brackel, whereby I then hop on the tram into Dortmund zentrum, making a bee-line for the Hauptbahnhof (railway station).
Now I wouldn’t say that I’m a train-spotter, I couldn’t tell one loco from another, but I like rail travel. Growing up in Basingstoke, the departure board in the station would indicate departures to far-flung destinations such as Bournemouth, London Waterloo, or even as far afield as Birmingham, but as I sat supping my half litre of Dortmunder Union on the station concourse, I liked the fact that I could, if I so desired, travel on continuous rails to Amsterdam, Brussels, or even Paris, although I was a little concerned that the Russians might invade while I was away – it was the tail-end of the cold-war after all. But one particularly dismal autumn day I looked at the departure board & told the British Army & the Russians, to do one. In my best fractured German, I ordered a return ticket for Frankfurt, a city about 200 klicks (kilometres) away from Dortmund. The German trains, being electric, were much quieter & cleaner than their UK counterparts & they were also warm & comfortable, which made the perfect environment for snoozing. As the train click-clacked through the sidings of Dortmund’s industrial suburbs, I settled back into my chair & happily gazed out of the rain splattered window at the dormant, graffitied rail carriages, while Paradise City blared through the earphones of my Sony Walkman. In the anonymity of that carriage, I was just another ordinary, spotty-faced teenage kid on a train, albeit one with a very short haircut at a time when the average German youth sported a dapper mullet, complete with a 70’s porn-star moustache.
That initial escape, gave me the confidence to go on adventures further afield & over the next couple of years, from Dortmund I forayed all over Germany by train; Kiel in the north, München in the south, Hanover in the east & Köln in the west – I even went to Zeebrugge, which was a good 8 hour trip, just to try some Belgian waffles. In fact I was sat in the station café in Zeebrugge when it was announced that the Berlin wall had fallen. (And if I ever hear David Hasselhoff singing ‘Looking for Freedom’ again…..)
My dawdles increased dramatically when I then got posted to Berlin. Following the 1948-49 airlift where British forces helped the West German people get vital food & supplies, the Berliners agreed as a thank-you, that all Allied personnel were to be gifted free travel on public transport within the city – an act that was still in operation until the last troops left in 1994. So when I arrived in early 1992, I found I had a massive city full of history to explore. I remember looking at the U-bahn (underground) map on the wall at Spandau & wondering where the hell do I go first. The station name that always made me chuckle was Schlesisches Tor, due to the fact that the more I tried to pronounce it, the more I sounded like a very drunk Sean Connery. It wasn’t long though before I soon discovered that the Zoologischer Garten was always a good place to aim for, as the Kurfürstendamm, with it’s trendy designer shops, hotels, bars & restaurants, was only around the corner.
Although my army career drew to a close in 1995, my enjoyment for dawdling has never diminished. To this day I still get seduced by departure boards in railway stations & I still cherish escaping on a train, with my headphones on, just staring at the scenery out of rain-splattered windows….