The bike was kaput


IT is unfortunate that traveling overseas seems to have a dangerous and negative aura about it these days. When in a foreign country, it is wise to do whatever one can in behalf of better relations. When in the military, the importance of this is paramount.

I spent much of 1969 living in a 20-man tent on the banks of the Rhine. To make weekend passes more enjoyable, I bought a folding bike from a soldier headed back to the States. One Saturday I went off pedaling through the German countryside, to explore the nearby towns of Dexheim, Nierstein, and Oppenheim.

As I rode along the streets, the residents of the villages were using old straw brooms and soapy water to keep the sidewalk and the street edges clean. Each resident had a specific area to care for, and it was up to him or her to do it. They accepted the responsibility with pride.

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The tube in the back tire of the bike had a defective patch on it, and air began to leak out. The tire got mushy until the rim was bumping over the cobblestones.

I dismounted and pushed the bike for a mile or two, until I came to a Volkswagen garage. A mechanic must have noticed the lost look on my face, and he came over. I pointed to the tire.

``Kaput,'' I said.

``Yah, . . .'' replied the mechanic.

``Can you fix this?'' I asked.

``Nein sprecken English,'' he remarked.

``Tire kaput, . . .'' I said. I wondered if he could repair the tire but I couldn't find out. I didn't take German in school. I had French instead.

Several workers in the garage had gathered, watching me do pantomime in the middle of the yard. I was not getting the message across. What I was getting was a whole lot of laughs.

After a while I was ready to give up. I did have a working knowledge of French. Perhaps somebody here would understand me. So I mixed words a little.

``La bicyclette est tr`es kaput. . . .''

There was a huge explosion of laughter all around. I had highlighted their afternoon. But the residents of Oppenheim had clearly won. The tire did not get fixed that day. There was a walk of many kilometers back to the river camp.

The folding bicycle went down on record as my worst investment. Each time I went into town something went wrong with it. I sold it to a platoon sergeant who gave it to his son. I hope he had a better time with it than I did.

While visiting Paris for nine days, I fared a little better. In my hotel room I rehearsed a breakfast order, en franais, some 50 times. With my new confidence I strolled down to a corner caf'e and delivered the order without a pause or stutter. The waiter was very proud, and his face beamed with admiration.

``That is very good,'' he spoke plainly with no accent at all.

The best you can do is all you can do.

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