Even though the weather had worsened further still, my flight to Frankfurt left Vancouver International exactly on time and I’d never in my life been so pleased to leave one place to head for another. The plane thrust high into the leaden grey sky, banked sharply and just a few minutes later, as it gently climbed to higher altitude, was soaring over a vast expanse of forests and mountains similar to those that had so very nearly been the death of me. For a brief time there was a magnificent view of snow capped peaks fading away to the horizon with thick forests adorning their lower slopes which plunged into deep and mysterious dark valleys. Then the plane was engulfed by thick cloud and the incredible panorama disappeared from sight for good.
I thought of my murdered friends whose final journey out of the Cascades wilderness wrapped unceremoniously in body bags would have taken place at the discretion of the police a few days ago. I had mixed feelings about the territory, such a breathtaking and wonderful part of the world but one I didn’t think I’d be in any hurry to revisit any time soon. Only once we were well on our way across British Columbia heading for Alberta could I settle down and relax, treating myself to a large malt whisky and mentally going through the details of my plan to re-enter civilisation as Corporal Frank Samuel Woolf.
The flight passed without incident and I slept a lot. There was a movie put on which I hoped might break the monotony, ‘The Great Gatsby’ starring Robert Redford, Bruce Dern and Mia Farrow. I preferred Robert Redford as The Sundance Kid rather than the nouveau riche Jay Gatsby. I couldn’t maintain an interest in the film so discarded my earphones and slept some more. The food offered on the plane was nothing to write home about but I consumed it all, wanting to make sure I didn’t get hungry again in the foreseeable future.
I only had hand luggage with me in the form of my half empty rucksack so wasn’t delayed at the baggage carousel after the plane landed at Flughafen Frankfurt Terminal Mitte at dawn on a dreary Saturday morning. I sauntered past customs as nonchalantly as I could and enjoyed the relief of not being stopped or questioned on my way through. Aware of the rank odour emanating from my rucksack and its contents I was pretty sure the customs officers had also had a narrow escape. I followed the throng of passengers from my flight out into the arrivals area and at that point I encountered a bit of a surprise.
On the other side of a rope barrier designed to shepherd us through the bottleneck and away, a crowd of people had gathered to greet friends and loved ones. There in the front of the crowd, leaning over the barrier and studying everyone as they came through, stood a man holding a crudely made cardboard sign upon which was scrawled three words. ‘Corple Frank Wolf’.
My immediate inclination was to walk over to introduce myself and I took a pace towards the man but my sixth sense threw in a hint of doubt, giving me second thoughts. Something about the man was wrong apart from him having spelled my name and rank incorrectly on his sign. It was only a matter of a second or two’s hesitation but in that time I considered, why would someone who obviously didn’t know me, be here to greet me? The man was certainly not a member of the forces. For a start his hair was far too long and to top that he only appeared to have one eye. He was a mean looking hard case with a livid scar running from above his right eyebrow and diagonally down onto his cheek. He had a face like a bag of spanners with just a hint of a sneer playing around his mouth. Where his right eye should have been there was instead just a sunken ugly mess but the remaining eye was shifting and twitching from side to side as he scrutinised each of the passengers as they streamed past.
He must have spotted my initial interest in the cardboard sign and gave me a hard, penetrating look. I instinctively turned away and walked quickly towards the building’s exit. I sensed rather than saw someone else focus his attention on me from the edge of the crowd near to the doors leading outside so I veered to my right and headed in the direction of an illuminated sign on a wall indicating ‘Die Toilette’. I stole a glance over my shoulder and saw the one eyed man scurrying after me and another matching his pace close behind. At that point I threw caution to the wind and legged it. A woman holding the hand of a small child entered through a swing door beside the entrance to the toilets. I swerved around them and burst through the same door which slammed against the inner wall noisily as it swung back. I’d entered a stair well so grabbed the balustrade for leverage and took the two flights of stairs three at a time up to the next level, aware of two sets of heavy, pounding footsteps on the stairs behind me. At the top I ran through another swing door and out into a busy concourse lined with shops and cafés. I bulldozed through the throng of people doing my best not to knock anybody over but failing, flattening an elderly lady.
“Sorry love,” I instinctively muttered and made as if to help her up but heard a crash as my assailants burst through the swing door close behind me. I abandoned the old dear and set off again quickly. Dozens of guttural expletives were aimed in my direction as I blundered across the busy concourse. There were numerous uniformed security guards mixed in with the crowd, their heavy leather belts supporting pistols and radios but I didn’t want their kind of attention so ran on. The only thing on my mind was to escape. In full flight I veered sharply left again and sprinted down a wide staircase which brought me back to the arrivals lounge where I headed directly for the exit, hoping there weren’t more of them to cut off my escape.
I ran between two large automatic sliding doors and out onto a wide paved area alongside a taxi rank where people were queuing and loading suitcases into the trunks of big black Mercedes saloons. Dodging between two cars I crossed a broadway to the opposite side where there were more parking spaces tightly packed with vehicles nudging a chest high steel barrier behind them. Beyond the barrier, perhaps a hundred yards away the Frankfurt Sheraton Hotel towered over the immediate area. Without pause I vaulted the barrier to head in the direction of the hotel. Wild eyed and panic stricken I was in mid-air before I considered how big the drop on the other side of the barrier might be and if I’d had time to think about it at all I probably wouldn’t have risked jumping. My stomach lurched into my chest as I plummeted about twenty feet into an ornamental garden below.
Fortunately for me there had been weeks of rain prior to my arrival in Germany so that the earth was deeply sodden, providing a reasonably soft landing. A combination of this, the surge of adrenalin coursing through my body and months of parachute training that had been drummed into me during intensive courses over the years, saved me from injury. I hit the ground at what felt like terminal velocity but with knees slightly bent and locked tightly together with elbows tucked in I executed a perfect para-roll, flattened an impressive display of winter flowering pansies, regained my feet and took off at top speed towards the Sheraton, hoping to find a hiding place within. Once I reached the hotel, with my new clothes and boots now caked with slimy mud and crushed pansies, I didn’t think the reception staff would be too enamoured with me bursting into their pristine foyer. I risked a look behind towards the ornamental garden and with relief saw that my pursuers had lost heart. They were both standing behind the barrier from which I’d leapt and staring in my direction, chests visibly heaving from the effort of the chase. Even at that distance I sensed pure malice in the glare I received from that evil pair and a half of eyes, so promptly trotted away thinking, “Who the bloody hell are those ugly buggers?”
Taking a left turn at the end of the hotel block I spotted a sign for the Bahnhof so headed in that direction. Rather than enter the railway station though, I ducked and dived through several alleyways and streets until half an hour later, certain I was no longer being pursued, I slowed down to a more gentle walking pace and doubled back. Inside the station building I walked wearily to the public toilets where I did my best to clean myself up again. My parka had suffered the most, smeared thickly with slimy wet mud all down my right side and back. Without proper laundry facilities in my opinion it was a write off so I screwed it up and stuffed it into a bin. My jeans weren’t too badly soiled and my boots cleaned up OK. Ten minutes later, satisfied that I looked reasonably presentable I left the station and entered a nearby Bureau de Change where I traded every last remaining Canadian dollar I possessed into Deutsche marks. With the exchange rate being so heavily in my favour, even after all of my recent extravagance I still had quite a healthy sum. More than enough to treat myself to a new top coat when the opportunity presented itself. Back on the street and already feeling chilly, on the spur of the moment I jumped aboard a tram which had eased to a halt right alongside where I stood. A glance at the route map above where the driver sat taking the fares indicated that the end of the line was a place called Fechenheim out on the outskirts of the city so I bought a ticket, found a seat and settled down for the journey. The tram dropped me off near a picturesque river bank outside a coffee bar. Tables and chairs spilled onto a paved promenade so I went over and chose a seat with its back to the wall and a good view of the throng of travellers milling around in the immediate vicinity. Keeping a wary eye out for my mystery pursuers but confidant I’d lost them I ordered a drink and a pastry and thought about my next move.
I was still a little hazy about the conversation I’d had with Loopy back there in the mountains after he’d clobbered me, but snippets of it floated around in the back of my mind as I relaxed with an exceptionally good ‘starken Kaffee’. It could have been down to the numerous bangs on my head I’d received lately, or perhaps it was the amount of marijuana I’d consumed back on the farm in Chilliwack but I was having trouble concentrating and making sense of everything that had happened. So it seemed a good idea to jot down all that I could remember and make a list of what I still needed to find out. There was a newsagent’s next door where I purchased a pen and paper. From there I spotted a clothing store so went in and bought myself a thick woollen navy blue reefer jacket with a matching fisherman’s style woolly hat. Then I returned to the café and after a couple of coffee refills, I found there were just a few blanks to fill in on my list. I could remember Loopy saying that he was to have rejoined his new unit in Soltau directly after returning from leave, but couldn’t remember if he’d mentioned an exact date. I also hadn’t a clue about what arrangements were in place to transfer his, or rather my kit and personal possessions from Bielefeld. There was only one way to find out what I needed to know, I would have to get creative on the telephone.
A short while later I was standing in a telephone kiosk with a stack of silver Deutsche Marks balanced upon my writing pad. It was straight forward enough to find the telephone number of the guard room at Ripon barracks in Bielefeld from directory enquiries. It was nine thirty in the morning. The day shift would have taken over from the night shift at eight o’clock after early parade and I knew that the MPs didn’t man the guard room at the weekends. This was to my advantage as I would be speaking to an ordinary soldier rather than a suspicious or just plain awkward military policeman. Instead the guard commander would be a sergeant or corporal, perhaps even someone from the REME workshops. Hoping it wouldn’t be anyone that knew me too well, taking a deep breath I dialled the number, fed a couple of my coins into the slot and listened, prepared to hang up immediately if I recognised the voice that answered.
“Hello, Ripon Barracks Guard Room.”
Bingo! The broad Scottish brogue was totally unfamiliar to me.
“Oh hello. I’m not sure if you can help me. I’m trying to track down a mate of mine from when I was attached to One Para LAD a while ago. I think he ended up being posted to Bielefeld soon after we got back from Ireland. Frank Woolf, a corporal, also known as Loopy?” I spoke in my most pronounced Lancashire dialect, dropping my voice half an octave to make sure it wasn’t recognisable as my own. I couldn’t be too careful.
“Never heard of him,” came the short reply. “Who’d you say you are?”
“Sorry, yeah. Corporal Smith attached to the Second Queens LAD in Werl now,” I replied, plucking the first name that came to me out of the air.
“We were good mates for quite a while me and Loopy, back then with the Paras. Seeing as I’m in the area I thought I’d look him up. But I know he’s in married quarters now so wondered if anyone could point me in the right direction.”
“OK hang on. There’s one of your lot here from the LAD.”
Before I could say anything else he took the phone away from his mouth and shouted, “Oi! Cleary! You heard of a bloke called Frank or Loopy Woolf? REME corporal. A mucker of his from the Paras wants to look him up.”
Cleary was a REME driver. I knew him vaguely but we had never been friends. From what I could remember he was a bit of a miserable sod who nobody really liked. I decided to bluff it out. I could hear a short discussion in the background and then a different voice came on the line, this time a cockney.
“You want to speak to Loopy?”
I deepened my voice and exaggerated my accent a little more.
“Aye that’s right, if I can find him. I’m over this way for a couple of weeks on a course and thought I’d try and track him down.”
“You obviously ain’t ‘eard then mate. Fuckin’ nightmare. I’d rather let ’im tell you about it if you meet up, but he ain’t here now. He got posted to 207 Signals in Soltau but he’s away on leave at the moment before he joins ’em on Monday.”
“Like I say, you’d best ask ‘im about it. I ain’t spoutin’ off about ‘is business on the phone to some geezer who I don’t know. You ought to know what he’s like. Fuckin’ nutter. More than my life’s worth. So I’ll just tell you what I told the other geezer last week. He’s bin on leave to Canada and joins ’is new unit on Monday after ’e gets back.”
“What other geezer?” I asked while hurriedly scribbling the new information down on my notepad.
“Copper he said he was. Fuckin’ Irish. Phoned up and said he wanted to talk to Loopy about his missus.”
“OK. So he’ll be in Soltau as of Monday?”
“Yeah Monday. I ’ad to take all ’is gear up there fer ’im yesterday. Bournemouth Barracks. What a shit ‘ole. Arse end of nowhere. Traffic was fuckin’ murder too.”
“Thanks a lot mate, cheers.”
It had turned out to be a more productive conversation than I’d hoped. I put the phone down and walked back towards where the tram had dropped me off, thinking about what I’d found out. Soltau was way up north, about a hundred miles or more from Bielefeld. I’d been up there several times on exercise out on the ranges but I didn’t know the town at all. From where I was at present, way down in Frankfurt, I reckoned it must be four or five hours away. I decided that I’d better get myself up there as soon as possible rather than hang about any longer. Putting a good distance between myself and the airport was a priority knowing that those ugly buggers whoever they might be, were probably still out there somewhere looking for me. I still didn’t have a clue what they wanted but they certainly hadn’t appeared to be very friendly.
On my way down the street I noticed a barber shop on the opposite side. On a whim, I went in and got myself a haircut. Loopy and I had hair of a similar thickness and colour but mine had grown far longer than the regulation length, even for the REME where we got away with a less strict regime than most units. Besides, I reckoned it wouldn’t do any harm to alter my appearance slightly under the circumstances so I went for a harsh all over crop, down to the wood at the sides and back. I winced as the clippers passed over my recently healed scalp but the barber made no comment about my injury so I assumed it wasn’t too dramatic. When he held up the mirror for me to check his work at the back I could see that the wound was barely noticeable.
The tram systems running in most German cities and towns are a brilliant facility and I could never understand why so few existed back in England. The cheerful looking carriages are clean, comfortable, cheap and run frequently giving passengers an opportunity to enjoy the wonderful architecture and whatever else the streets have to offer from a different perspective. Far better than the filth, noise and congestion experienced in places like London underground or even on the buses. I took the next tram back into the centre of Frankfurt and hopped off back outside the railway station. Keeping a watch out for ‘Cyclops’ and his mate I went directly over to the Fahrkartenschalter and asked about the next train to Soltau. I was in luck. There was one leaving in twenty minutes entailing one change to make at Hanover. I bought myself a one way ticket then made my way down a flight of steps onto the platform, standing beneath a cast iron staircase where I hoped I would be less noticeable, feeling a chilly breeze around my newly exposed ears and thankful for my new hat.
The rail journey actually took longer than anticipated, five hours in fact including the connection I had to make in Hanover. The inexplicable experience with the two blokes at the airport was playing heavily on my mind but without any idea of who they were or what they wanted, the longer the journey lasted the further I was able to push the mystery aside. I even dozed for most of the trip, arriving in Soltau late in the afternoon refreshed but hungry again. I found a reasonable looking Gasthaus within walking distance of the station and booked a room for two nights. After checking in and dumping my gear off I sat in the cosy dining room and stuffed myself with an excellent plate of Weiner Schnitzel, minted buttery potatoes and peas accompanied by a litre stein of frothy lager. I planned to spend the majority of the following day chilling out, familiarising myself with the town and checking out the barracks before I took the plunge on Monday morning and reported for duty. For now though, it just felt so good to be back.