I was living with my wife, Beth, in a little nondescript village about a half hour drive north of Frankfurt, Germany. It was called Neider Wöllstadt, which means lower Wöllstadt. Oddly enough, we had also lived in Ober (upper) Wöllstadt as well the previous year. Actually, I could not really tell the difference. The demarcation line was the railroad tracks. Our little town sat astride, and on both sides of, the main express rail line from Frankfurt to Hannover, and all points north. The super high-speed trains would come through our little station so fast that the whoosh of oncoming air could knock you off your feet if you were standing too near the tracks. Don't do that.
In fact, from our little flat on a short narrow street near the tracks, we could hear the Schnellzug IC Express trains rocket through town, some going north and others south. From my bed at night I could often hear them and could tell which direction each was heading. It was not loud enough to be annoying; but in fact I kind of liked it, wondering who was aboard – the passengers not even mindful of us sleeping residents in another quiet village flying by the train windows.
Our street had a grand total of sixteen houses – eight on each side. It was called Wolfspfad (the wolf's path). We were number six. Of course, we knew everybody on that short little pfad. Or should I say, they all knew us – the foreigners – the Americans. Our landlord, Frau Weller, lived on the second floor alone and her mother lived on the top floor – and we never saw her. It was a pleasant arrangement, and our quiet lives spun along uneventfully. Well, other than going to work daily, we frequently had house parties, inviting other expatriate foreigners as well as American servicemen from the nearby Army base in Friedberg. Our house was open to all, and we never knew when a gang of guys and gals from the area would blow in, usually bringing pizza and all manner of great German sausages and whatever they could get at the local pastry shop. These impromptu gatherings are some great memories. In addition to a close Swiss friend or two and the Americans, Frau Weller always managed to show up on the doorstep as well. She was lonely, and always came downstairs when she heard anything happening at the Muzzio flat on the ground floor. She just needed to be around people, I think. She was always welcome and she knew it. Then a fun thing happened.
The thirties-something couple with two small children at number 8 were getting a new au pair from Sweden. Of course, Frau Weller told us all about it. Everybody on the Wolfspfad already knew. We were always the last to learn anything, but were definitely in the loop. Mae Britt turned out to be a delightful young woman from the far north of Sweden. We didn't see anything of her at first... About two weeks or so after she arrived, I ran into her on the street with the two kids in tow. I introduced myself and we talked. She was obviously grateful for the conversation. She told me that although her German employers could speak English, they worked long hours and didn't interact with her much other than discussing issues relating to the children. She was lonely, and although she talked with her mom in Sweden now and then on the phone, she was completely isolated. I invited her over that night for dinner. She and Beth hit it off right away, and within a week she was totally plugged into our broad circle of friends. Like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, she fit in perfectly.
One dark rainy night in January, about ten or twelve of us went to a musical presentation in downtown Frankfurt. It was a casual affair with lots of old friends I knew from my days living in the city. Afterward, we set out for the Autobahn – north, caravan style. Some of the GIs from the military base led the way. A couple other young American and Canadian women – plus Mae Britt and a Hispanic military wife named Cecilia, who brought her baby along – were in the middle. I brought up the rear with Beth and some German friends from our village. The freeway was dark and wet, but the cars didn't even slow down – as usual. There are abundant signs along the autobahns warning of “aquaplaning” – which Americans call hydroplaning. It is when a gloss of water prevents the tires from actually making contact with the road surface. Loss of steering and braking is the result. I saw it that night. Right before my eyes, the car carrying the young women left the road and sailed into the air, bouncing off the guard rail and rolling end over end off the freeway. And then it rolled over and over into an adjacent wet, muddy field. The car ended up on its top. By the time I pulled over, leaped over the rail, and slid down a steep incline that their car had totally skipped over, I found myself in a ditch full of dark water. I dragged myself out and headed up the other bank toward the upside-down car. The windows were all broken, and the women were pulling themselves out. By then, the rest of the guys in my car were on the scene as Cecilia, in a panic, began to scream: “Where's my baby?” We had no flash lights, but frantically began looking. The baby was not inside the car! (These were the days before mandatory car seats and seat belts.) A shudder ran up my spine as I considered that the child might in fact be under the car. Then one of the guys yelled out: “Here she is!” She had been thrown clear of the car during the multiple rollovers, but we all rejoiced.
Everyone had survived. No one was even injured except Mae Britt who had sustained a concussion, as we later learned when she was in the hospital in nearby Oberürsel. She was there a week and we visited every day, bringing magazines, flowers, and sweets. She told me that she had learned a few German words like Gehirnershütterung (concussion) and schwindlig (dizzy).
One day during her hospital stay, Mae Britt mentioned that this experience, as bad as it was, was not the worst thing ever to happen to her. One evening in Helsinki she had driven her car onto a common car ferry bound for Stockholm. We are all familiar with those ferries. It was an overnight trip. She had parked the car, found her berth, thrown her bag on the bunk, and set out to get something to eat at the ship's cafeteria. Nothing seemed the least bit out of the ordinary. Then there was a shudder, a kind of thud. The sound was loud, but at first no one knew what had happened. There are no icebergs in the Baltic Sea, so it was not a rerun of Titanic; but the ferry immediately began to list to port. It happened rapidly, and she said that in no time you could see the panic on the faces of the passengers.
They learned later that the load had shifted, and, once it had hit a fulcrum, the entire ship was off-center and was obviously going to roll over on its side. Everyone panicked and began running up, out the doors, onto the deck, and up to the railing. Then, the next thing she knew, she was in the cold black waters of the Baltic. I could picture the scene. She told us that it was so cold that all she could do was try to cry out for help. “Hjälp mig!” (help me) was all she could manage to get out before her strength failed. She told us that she could remember the inky blackness and the severe cold. She closed her eyes and gave up. Then an amazing thing happened. She opened her eyes, and at that moment a wave of warmth swept over her and she saw a stunning azure blue sky and overhanging palm trees. It was so wonderful, so warm and beautiful. We all know these are endorphins kicking in – a common near-death experience.
Then something else happened. She felt someone pulling on her arm! She resisted. She did not want to leave the quiet blue-green, warm waters of that tropical lagoon. But they kept pulling. Then, as quickly as it came, it went away and the cold icy darkness came back in a flood. They pulled her out of the water, and she was safe and lived to tell us the story. I guess if I took anything away from her amazing account it was, as she put it: “No matter how black and cold and dark the situation may be, there may always be someone out there willing to pull you out.”