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St. Peter's Ditch

In the Book of Proverbs we read, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”. It is a lesson I have relearned many times in my life, and I have one story that illustrated it to perfection.

In 2016, my sweet wife decided to surprise me with a very special new car for my birthday, a Mercedes C300. She had been to see our local Mercedes dealer in Raleigh and had met a very young, very smart, very unusual salesman from the Mascarene Islands off the East Coast of Africa. He had learned about his product from the assembly floor and was a savant among salesmen in his knowledge of every aspect of the car.

What Hayden was trying to arrange for me was a factory pickup in Sindelfingen Germany at the Mercedes Assembly Plant. This wonderful program includes 5-star hotel accommodations, gourmet lunch at the headquarters, a plant tour, and a 90-minute orientation to your new vehicle on the plush showroom floor. You then can use your new car to tour Europe at your leisure and return it to Frankfurt for shipment back to the US.

There was just one big problem. The Mercedes C300 was not assembled in Germany, but in Vance, Alabama.

After a rather disappointing 48 hours, our salesman had talked to his management and arranged a generous alternative. While my car would be delivered to Raleigh for pickup, I would still get to pick up and use a car from the Sindelfingen plant. The Raleigh dealership was naturally ordering cars from Germany every week and it so happened that they were in the process of ordering a personal car to be used by their sales manager. He wanted a snow white E450 Cabriolet Convertible, a car way more beautiful, way cooler, and way more James Bond than this Catonsville boy had ever dreamed of.

After a beautiful night in Stuttgart and an unforgettable day in Sindelfingen, I drove the car out of the showroom, to the front of the assembly plant where I took the standard photo in front of the iconic Mercedes Star logo. It was 3:45 pm, September 19, 2016, and I was on my way.

The timing of this adventure was perfect. Hayden worked for a Swedish firm named BTS and was running a leadership workshop in Heidelberg for SAP. Her travel was paid for by the company, so Heidelberg became our base of operations, and I did day trips while she worked. Each morning I would spread my map of Bavaria out on the floor of our room and plot my journey for the day. I love to drive; I love to wander; and I simply love the scenery, food, and culture of Southern Germany. Seeing it in the crisp, clean air of early Fall from the wheel of a sporty Mercedes convertible was a special treat.

Planning the day's adventure

Much of my travel were return trips to Rothenberg, Baden-Baden, and other picturesque towns of Bavaria. Most of one day was devoted to Volklingen Ironworks in the Saarland, the world’s only surviving smelting works from the Golden Age of the iron and steel industry in the 19th and 20th century. Preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is a dusty, rusty playground for industrial history buffs. Dressed in my hardhat and my play clothes I climbed countless stairs, and had a field day learning about this incredible facility.

I planned to eventually venture down into the Black Forest, a part of Germany that I had never visited. I had been to the resort town of Baden-Baden, but the heart of the forest was a long haul from Heidelberg. With each day I was more confident with the car and the Autobahn and ready for a longer day trip. Sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for.

The Black Forest (Schwarzwald) is a large, forested mountain range in south-west Germany. It is in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, bounded by the Rhine Valley to the west and south and close to the borders with France and Switzerland.

Simply put, the scenery is stunning. Majestic mountain outcrops surrounded by an ocean of conifer forest, verdant valleys with patchworks of small farms and Hnterwald cattle. Occasional church or cow bells added the perfect accompaniment to this breathtaking painting. The roads are narrow and tight. The perfect place to test the sport setting on the Benz.

I had breakfast on the Autobahn and St. Margen was my first stop in the late morning. I visited the Maria Himmelfahrt (Assumption of Mary) Church as well as shops and a classic butcher shop for a world class roast beef sandwich for lunch. From there I meandered through the mountains ever conscious of the time. The sun disappears in the Black Forest ravines and your watch is your only clue as to the time of day.

St. Margen

I had seen photographs of St. Peter and the beautiful monastery that dominates the town center. When I arrived, I realized that it is so dominant that it is impossible to photograph the monastery from ground level. I needed a higher location to get a shot. After a couple of false starts, I finally found a little road named Roter Weg (Red Road) that rose out of town and curved its way to a summit. I turned left off the road onto a farm lane when I thought I had reached the right altitude. As I drove down the dusty trail, I realized that a very high hedge row was blocking my view of the town, and this was not the right location for a picture.

To my left was the imposing hedge row and to my right was a verdant grass field neatly mowed in pristine German style. The grass was trimmed to the same exact height as the road surface, but when I swung the car to the right (intending to make a tight u-turn) the front right tire plunged into a hidden drainage ditch that ran the entire length of the field. With motion to the right abruptly stopped, I turned the wheel and felt the rear of the car lurch and my back right tire drop into the same ditch. I tried to rock the car with an alternate forward and reverse action but found that I was hopelessly stuck with the right-side undercarriage resting on the ground and the tires deep in the ditch.

My mind momentarily went blank. I offered an invective to the sky above and climbed out of the car to assess my dilemma. While there was no visible wheel, tire, or body damage, my soaring ego had taken a crushing blow. Every ounce of hubris was drained from my being.

As I stood there blindly staring at the car, I went down my list of problems. This beautiful car that I had picked up with a power of attorney for a sales manager on the other side of the world is now stuck in a ditch with the right-side undercarriage sitting on the dusty gravel road. It is now approximately 3:30 pm and I was in a little town in the middle of the Black Forest, far away from the large English-speaking cities of Germany. I spoke enough German to buy a beer and find the bathroom, but the extent of this dilemma was going to require luck or a German angel to get me home.

I put the top up on the convertible, hid my camera and souvenirs under a jacket, locked the car and started walking back down the farm lane toward Roter Weg. I didn’t know at the time that the street name translated to Red Road, but if I had it would have tipped me off.

I vaguely remembered passing what I thought was some kind of auto repair shop as I ascended the winding road 15 minutes earlier. As I trudged back down the street, my panic increased with every step (I’ve wrecked the car; this car doesn’t belong to me; what damage could I have done to the expensive underside of this expensive car; what will Hayden say…(well, that one I knew the answer to)). I saw the blue and yellow sign of what I had thought was an auto repair shop (tow truck maybe?). But as I drew closer, I realized that both the sign graphics and the parking lot were full of motorcycles and motor bikes. Not a tow truck anywhere to be seen. I walked into the open garage door of the shop and encountered a five foot ten, overall-clad, 40-something mechanic working on a disassembled bike on a grease-covered bench. Slightly blonde, square German build, he was holding a wrench. He appeared to be by himself and had a friendly smile as I approached.

I sheepishly smiled in turn and asked in my broken German whether he “shpreckened” the English. His two-word answer both heartened and scared me. “Not much”. So, I went the charades route, pretending I was driving a car, pointing up the hill, and ending with a jerk to the right and “Mercedes stuck” as the verbal grand finale of my act. Jerr-Dan must be a universal brand of wrecker because when I kept saying I need a Jerr-Dan I could see in his face that he understood what I was referring to. He held up 2 fingers to show me how many were in the area (I later learned that he meant in this whole region of the Black Forest) and motioned me into his very neat office where his phone was sitting on the desk.

He sat down, searched the well-worn phone directory, and placed the first call. After a number of rings, the phone on the other end clicked over to an answering machine and my mechanic buddy said, “nicht zuhause” which I roughly translated as “not home.” One down, one to go. This second phone call was answered almost immediately, and the mechanic explained the situation to the driver on the other end. I would imagine the call went something like this. “Fritz, this is Heiko (his actual name). I’ve got another one of those idiot Americans here who has stuck his brand-new Mercedes convertible in that farm field up Red Road. He looks desperate, has no Auto Club Membership so…cash deal. How soon can you get here?”

He looked back at me and conveyed on the wall map that the Jerr-Dan driver was on the other side of the valley. He then pointed at the number 5 on the clock. That would mean an hour’s wait, but it was the first time I was able to breathe normally in this whole ordeal. Help was on the way.

Then pure German hospitality and kindness kicked in as Heiko asked me if I’d like some “wasser” while I waited. I said yes and then he asked, “Sprudel?” I honestly thought I was going to get a pastry, but he meant sparkling water which he proceeded to make with one of those carbonation machines. He smiled, handed me a glass of cold bubbly water, showed me a picnic bench on the edge of the parking lot, and went back to work.

I heard my savior’s truck before I saw it. After a wait of only 45 minutes, the revving engine and gear shifts of the wrecker were audible winding up Roter Weg. Heiko came out of the shop and joined me as we walked into the parking lot and watched the truck pull in. After gliding to a stop, the driver’s door swung open and an energetic little German elf jumped down from the cab and greeted us both. I listened as he and Heiko engaged in a short conversation. He was small but clearly rugged with working man hands and a buzz cut. He turned to me and said, “Los geht’s” which I took to mean, let’s go. I shook hands with Heiko, gave him back his water glass and a big “Danke”, and climbed into the passenger seat of the truck.

We didn’t converse on the way up the hill, and I just motioned to the left when we got to the farm lane. Just after we made the left turn onto the dirt and gravel path, my car came into view about 50 yards ahead. The little white jewel with the black convertible top was sitting at a rakish angle, obviously hopelessly stuck in the ditch. The driver abruptly stopped the truck. He turned to me and with a grin that I can only describe as devilish, said in surprising English, “Nice job”.

My embarrassed laugh was accompanied by the sound of a shift into reverse gear and the engine accelerating as we backed up. I panicked thinking this was it…he couldn’t do it and I was screwed, but soon realized he was just looking for a safe place to turn his truck around. He did so near the entrance to the lane and then backed the wrecker down the lane to within a few yards of the back of the Mercedes. We both got out of the truck, and he motioned for me to open the trunk of the car. I did so and he reached in, lifted the trunk panel to reveal the spare tire compartment and the accompanying tools. He took out what looked like a very large eye bolt, laid down under the left rear of the car and popped out the little recovery point panel. Kneeling at the bumper, he pushed the eye bolt through the little opening and screwed it into the frame. He got back into the truck and pulled it forward on an angle pointing toward the hedge row and away from the field. He then turned on the winch motor with a handheld remote and the winch cable slithered across the rear of the truck bed to a point within his reach. He grabbed the end of the cable, walked it over to the car and attached it to the eye bolt.

He walked over to the driver’s door of the car, opened it, and motioned for me to get in. I followed his instructions and knew instinctively what my job was at this point. With a front drive vehicle all the weight is in the front. As he pulled the lighter rear of the car out of the ditch with the winch, I was supposed to rev the car (slightly) in reverse and steer it out of the ditch while being pulled backward. I started the car, put it in reverse, and when he yelled something, I took to mean “now”, revved the car, and turned the wheel. We accomplished our task on the first try. The sound that emanated from the undercarriage of the car as we were achieving victory gave me pause, but we both looked under the car and while filled with mud from the wet ditch it appeared to be intact.

As he rewound the winch, unscrewed the bolt for the recovery point of the car, and neatly returned it to the tool kit in the trunk, I re-arranged my things in the car, and removed my wallet from my back pocket. Our final transaction occurred on the side of the dirt road and consisted of a brief, clumsy exchange establishing the fact that I did not have any auto club membership to cover the cost of the service. He then quoted me a price (I don’t honestly remember what it was, but it seemed fair) and I handed him a wad of Euros. We shook hands and with a laugh he motioned to me that backing down the road would be a good idea. In a cloud of dust, he was gone.

I took his sage advice and slowly backed down the lane in the disappearing afternoon light. I had recovered my normal heartrate but not my pride as I meandered through the forest en route to the Autobahn. Listening for the slightest hint of mechanical disfunction I eventually joined the afternoon traffic parade and accelerated to full speed on my way back to Heidelberg.

While I had continued to follow Mr. B’s sage funeral advice (See Last Ride blog) and wrapped myself in automotive luxury, I learned yet again that driving cool is not being cool. Just because you have surrounded yourself with the entrapments of wealth and capitalist success, you are the same guy who drove the Mercury Montego and your father’s gifted Matador. You looked smart as you drove through Heidelberg; you looked dashing as you motored through Baden-Baden; you looked handsome as you turned onto Roter Weg; but you were still the same schmuck as you climbed out of the driver’s door in midair on that dirty little farm lane with your chariot in a rut.

You have to build your character by the things you do in this life, not the things you own.

Watch out. Pride cometh before the fall (into a ditch).

Postscript: I arrived safely back at the hotel in Heidelberg that evening and Hayden and I drove to Frankfurt the next day to drop the car off for shipment. The agent at the port not only did a walk around but got down on his hands and knees and conducted an undercarriage inspection. He probably wondered why it was wet, given the clear weather. I had given the car a thorough wash before hitting the road that morning, including a good spray on the underside. After the car passed inspection and the papers were signed, Hayden and I got in a cab for the airport. It was on that cab ride that I told Hayden the tale of St. Peter’s Ditch. She said all of the things that I expected.

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