One of the things I remember about our time in Germany was going to stay in the AFRC (Armed Forces Recreation Center) resorts. These were for the use of military personnel and their dependents and gave them a chance to have a vacation away from their home bases that didn’t cost too much. The main ones our family went to were the big resorts in the Bavarian Alps, in Garmisch and in Berchtesgaden.
The first time we went on one of these vacations was to Berchtesgaden in the mid 1970s. It was at the beginning of December and we went for a long weekend, having booked the rooms back in Daley Barracks’ Recreation Center.
We drove all day from Bad Kissingen down to Berchtesgaden on the efficient German autobahn system. We stopped off in Nurnberg to fill up on gas at the big PX there, and again in Munich, at the Perlacher Forst AAFES garage close to McGraw Kaserne. We also did some shopping for food at the commissary there and went to the bookstore to buy a supply of comics. After that, we headed back onto the autobahn and drove towards the Austrian border. Ahead of us we began to see the German Alps rising into the sky.
Just before the border, we turned off and drove into the valleys to Berchtesgaden, getting there in the late afternoon. All around us were hills and mountains covered in snow. We first went to the AFRC billeting office to get our keys and sign in. This building was next to the housing area and had a old Nazi eagle over the door, minus the swastika. The place we stayed was called, if I remember rightly, the ‘Alpine Inn’, it was across from the town center on the other side of the river, not far from the PX and bowling center. It was like those tourist apartments in Yosemite Falls, separate buildings set amongst the trees, each building having two or three apartments in them.
Years later, when I first went to visit Yosemite, I thought, hey wait a minute, I’ve been here before! There was a lot of snow and by the evening dusk it all looked enchanted, the lights lit up, the trees all around and, beyond them, the high mountains. We took our baggage into our apartment and settled down. We had a picnic supper indoors with the things we had bought with us from Munich commissary.
My brother and I had one bedroom, my parents the other. In between the two bedrooms was a bathroom with connecting doors. You had to make sure that you locked both doors and, once you were finish, to unlock them again. I forgot to unlock my parents side and later on heard my dad shouting through; “open the goddamn door!”.
Berchtesgaden was up in the mountains and the highest peak was the twin peaked Watzmann which loomed over the town, usually covered in clouds. The town was nice enough but I wasn’t that interested in architecture as a child, unless it was a bunker or something like that. We went to the PX the next day and then had a look around the town.
There were quite a few American families around as Berchtesgaden offered skiing during the winter up in the hills. We went on the salt mine tour which, I guess, most Americans went on. To begin with, we had to put on some outer protective clothing which was like an old miners outfit. This consisted of a black cloth jacket and pants (white for women, black for the men), a leather ‘apron’ to cover your butt, and a black hat. Thus outfitted you were ready to descend into the mine.
This meant, firstly, a ride on a small train which seemed to race into the darkened tunnel at an almighty pace. Once in the mines you had to slide down these long steep slides to the bottom of the mine workings. This is what the leather ‘aprons’ were for, you sat on them as you slid down, holding on to the guy in front of you. All you heard were shouts and screams as everyone slid into the hole. There were two such slides.
Way down there, at the bottom, we saw a film about the salt mines and saw a carved altar. But the thing that has always stayed with me was the underground lake that we all sailed silently across on a barge, it was so eerie. To get up again, we all went into a giant elevator to go up a few levels, then back out into the daylight on the little train. We all had our group photo taken before we went in, they were ready to buy by time we got out. I still have mine, you can see it in my photo page. We also bought some rock salt to take with us.
From Berchtesgaden it wasn’t far to Austria. The next day we drove to the Austrian town of Salzburg, about a half hours drive away. I thought it was pretty cool living in a foreign country already, so I thought it was doubly cool to go to yet another foreign country. I was, however, a little disappointed when we weren’t stopped and searched but simply waved through.
Still, here was Austria and another experience. Salzburg is, of course, famous for Mozart and the ‘Sound of Music’, neither of which I was really interested in, or really aware of as a kid. To me it was a strange city with a big old castle and a lot of tall buildings and churches. We went to the castle which was pretty cool for a 11 year old. For some reason my parents went to the catacombs which I thought were cold and creepy. Otherwise, my two abiding memories are of an old guy playing a large musical organ and of a guy begging in the streets, something I hadn’t seen in Germany.
The other trip we took was to drive down to the Konigsee and go on a electric boat for a ride to the chapel. It was dads idea, of course, to go on a boat trip in the winter. There was snow all around and the lake had a haze over it, the high mountains were covered in clouds. Off course, we were the only people on the boat beside the guy operating it, and he looked like he wished we weren’t there.
We silently drifted up the lake, it was like being in a kayak off the coast of Greenland, it was so cold. We arrived at the chapel and got off. Everything was closed, we were the only people there. I can still recall the solitude of the mountains, how quiet everything was, even my brother and I. I remember everything was frozen, even the wooden pier and I was afraid of slipping into the lake!
That evening there was a big event on in the town where the locals dressed up as Saint Nickolaus and devils. They then went ’round the town giving out sweets to the local kids and threatening the bad kids with a big stick. There were fires lit, everyone was making a noise and everyone had these amazing costumes on, like old witches, devils, angels and, off course, St. Nickolaus looking like a bearded pope. It was really something to see. The next day I bought some postcards with pictures of the locals dressed up, which I still have.
We ate out in town every evening we were there, eating at a restaurant called ‘the Weinerwald’ which served mostly chicken dishes. This must have been a national chain as there was a Weinerwald in Bad Kissingen as well. We would then walk around the town window shopping before heading back to our apartment. I still remember seeing a store that sold fossils and minerals because in the window was a Trilobite fossil from Utah, which I found as an odd thing to see in Bavaria.
We went to to the General Walker hotel up in the hills overlooking Berchtesgaden the next day for breakfast. The General Walker was a big hotel up by the skiing area and quite popular. The breakfast was the usual AFRC fare, very filling. I went to the little shop there and bought some more postcards. We then went on the bunker tour.
These bunkers were under the hotel and must have gone miles. I didn’t realize it at the time but of course Hitler had his retreat here and most of the buildings came from the Nazi period. I did buy a postcard with Hitlers house on it, though it was long gone by time we went there. Bunkers to me, at that age, were more interesting than churches and I remember greatly enjoying the tour, seeing where grenades had gone off, looking at the machine gun placements etc.
The only other thing of note about my trip to Berchtesgaden was that I met a soldier from Daley Barracks who was also on vacation there. He was quite interested to hear that I came from Bad Kissingen as he was a BSA leader there. His name was Duffy or Duthie (don’t know whether that was his real name, nickname or whatever). However, we spent a idle hour talking about the Boy Scouts in the car park at the ‘Alpine Inn’, the big Watzmann mountain looking down at us.
I missed out on the Cubs, but coming up to the age that I could join the BSA, so he was quite keen to promote the Boy Scouts. He was a funny guy, and yes, I did join the Boy Scouts later on. He was so laid back, I remember that he always messed around with us kids when he was doing gate duty at the housing area gate. Once he twisted his ankle running after us when he was supposed to be guarding the gate. He was wanting to take off his boot while we were telling him not to in case his foot became too swollen to put back in his boot. What a guy!
Many years later I took my wife on a trip back to Berchtesgaden. I didn’t find the ‘Alpine Inn’ place we stayed in but we did go to the AFRC building, it still had the eagle over the door. The housing area was still there but the US military had pulled out some years before and everything was over grown with weeds.
The General Walker hotel was being demolished, but there was a center nearby that documented the Nazi past and you can still go into the bunkers. Now, however, as an adult, I found the local old buildings and churches much more interesting and found the bunkers sad and demoralizing.
We went down into the salt mines, still as much fun as always. The underground lake still as haunting as when I was a child. We also did the Konigsee boat trip, so much nicer in the summer under a warm sun! This time the boat was full of people.
We went to Salzburg and I have a much better appreciation of Mozart, though still don’t see the point of the ‘Sound of Music’. Berchtesgaden was as beautiful as always though the old US military facilities are gone, torn down.
Only the memories remain.