Bike Touring in Europe – 1954

The following story was written by “Uncle Wes” Peterson. Wes provided a key role in our bike tour this last summer by ferrying our vehicle to our desination and meeting us with a smile! Thanks for the help and the memories…

The year was 1954. I was a member of the Allied occupation forces during the last year of the occupation following World War II. Knowing that some of my ancestors had lived in Germany made it seem even better. Things were a bit drab as the German people were only ten years into the reconstruction following World War II.

I was stationed at what was called the Fifth General Dispensary in the southern part of the city of Munich. This was a clinic staffed by a number of military physicians backed up by several German physicians. It provided outpatient medical needs for the headquarters staff of the Southern Area Command as well as several thousand American dependents of the military staff throughout the greater Munich area. I enjoyed my work.

Many of the GI’s spent their off duty hours in beer halls. My roommate and I bought a new three speed bike imported from England. I rode it far more than he did. The freedom of travel my bike allowed me to explore the city of Munich and the surrounding area during my time off.

Some days would find me dressed in civilian clothing as I rode out into the country countryside. I would often find a farm family making hay. I would pick up a hay fork and begin helping them heap the freshly cut grass onto a temporary fence so it could cure into hay. It would have rotted had it remained on the ground. Soon a couple of the older men would come over to speak to me. Finding that I spoke only English, they would call one of the young boys who had learned English in school. He would translate for us. The workers were astonished to find an American GI who was interested in them. Soon one of the younger ones would be sent to the farmhouse, obviously to tell the women that there would be a guest for the noon meal. And what a meal it always was!

I enjoyed the architecture of the Bavarian farm houses. The ladies kept the homes immaculately clean. The odor, however, was another matter. They saved on fuel during the winter by having a large opening between the kitchen and the cow barn.

The barn had a drain from the gutters behind the cows and a big cistern where the run off urine was stored until spring. The solid waste matter was shoveled into this cistern where it would undergo a liquefying process. During the spring, it was then pumped out into tanks mounted on animal drawn wagons which we Americans referred to as honey wagons. The “ripe” fluid put off quite an odor as it was sprayed onto the fields. It was potent stuff. I once observed that the wheat grew especially lush at the end of the field where the honey wagon slowed down to make the turn.

I was in one barn at milking time. Having worked on an American dairy, I remember giving milk cows an amount of grain corresponding to the amount of milk they were producing. In Germany, the cows were given sugar beets according to milk production. The cows almost fought each other over the beets. The beets had been stored for most of a year in a root cellar and smelled terrible but the cows apparently had a different opinion.

I decided to take some leave time from the army during the summer. I learned that, as a member of the occupation forces, I was able to purchase tickets on the German railway for half the regular price. I bought a round trip ticket between Munich and Flensburg, a city on the Danish border. I also learned the cost of checking by bike was less if I would put the bike on the baggage car and pick it up at each time I changed trains and at the end of the trip. I was happy for this. Not only was it less expensive but it also insured that it was on the same train as I was riding.

I arrived in Flensburg about midnight. I fastened my luggage on the bike and headed out of town to find an appropriate place to roll out my sleeping bag. Spotting a sign on an arrow with the words, “Denmark – 8 km” which was only five miles away. I made a decision. I decided to spend my first night on Danish soil and rode on in a misty rain.

The border consisted of a small building with a window on the road side. Men with lunch boxes were stopping only to show a pass before riding on. I stepped up and showed him my military travel document which consisted of a mimeographed copy of my leave papers. He took one look and motioned me into the building through a doorway around the corner. A man there stamped my document and said, “You must go into the next room to process your car through customs.”

“But I have no car.”

His astonished reply was, “But you are an American, aren’t you?”

“Yes, and I have a bicycle.”

He shook his head and motioned me out through the door through which I had entered. An American passing through the border checkpoint on a bicycle was obviously something new to him. He waved me on.

I pedaled on, finding a “mile post” not far down the road. These “mile posts” appeared every few miles. They consisted of a tall pillar with an inscription in Danish surrounded by a hedge about four feet high. This provided a square, somewhat secluded area of about fifteen feet on a side. I slept in a number of these mile posts during that trip. There was only one problem. The sky was the roof and it leaked every night.

I looked for food in the first town I came to the next morning. I had to be very selective in terms of cost. I had eleven days and thirteen US dollars for all expenses. I found that bread was quite cheap and could be purchased in a bakery a half loaf at a time. I found that when the customer ahead of me bought half a loaf. Cream cheese was inexpensive. I spread it on the bread. I limited myself to half a loaf of bread a day. I felt the need for vitamins so I bought an orange each day. Being imported from Italy, orange tended to be a bit expensive. Milk, on the other hand, was about seven cents in American money. I drank as much as I wanted. I have joked about getting about twenty miles to a liter. That likely was not very far off my actual consumption. I would often find a sugar beet that had fallen from a wagon. I would eat one or two of these a day to supplement my diet. Many vacationers were traveling by bicycle. In some cases, the mother would be driving a 50cc Mo-Ped that had pedals to use in starting the engine and add power for the hills. She would have a child riding on the luggage behind her. The husband would often have another child and luggage on his bicycle. He would hang on to the motorbike and stop pedaling while on level ground.

Most of my fellow cyclists were more heavily loaded than I was. I prepared for the trip following some advice I read in a magazine article about vacationing on a bicycle. The author told me to make a pile of only the items I was sure I would need. That was the first step. The second was to attack the pile sorting out half of the previously selected items. This is what I did. I ended up taking a sleeping bag and what we called an AWOL bag. It was a small soft sided bag which closed at the top with a zipper. It got its name from being able to hold what a soldier might need when he went AWOL (Absent WithOut Leave). For clothing, I packed four changes of underwear and socks, two pairs of pants and four pullover shirts. I also had a razor, a packet of blades , and a bar of soap in a plastic soapbox. The bag still had room for a few food items and an empty liter sized empty milk bottle which I exchanged when I stopped a milkman delivering to houses on a village street. I did this about three or four times a day. I carried a large pocket knife to slice my bread and spread it with cream cheese. My bathing and laundry were done in public restrooms streams and, on a couple of occasions, the ocean.

I carried the sleeping bag on top of the awol bag. I dried it out from the previous night’s rain by rolling it to expose a new wet side when one had dried out. Only once did I have to crawl into a wet sleeping bag – not a happy experience.

Kids in the towns flagged down cyclists for autographs. I stopped in the first town to see what the notebooks contained.. Seeing that people would sing their name and the name of their home country, I did likewise. The first little boy looked at my autograph and began shouting, “oo-ss-ah” over and over. I was mobbed. Apparently an American traveling on a bike was very unusual. After that, I would wait until I was nearly through a town before stopping to autograph a notebook.

About half way up the Jutland peninsula, I came to the place where I crossed over to the Island of Fyn . I enjoyed visiting the home of Hans Christian Anderson in Odensee in the middle of the island. I was surprised to learn that he is the one who invented the co-op method of doing business. My great grandfather, Nels Peterson, immigrated to the United States during a time of serious economic depression in Denmark. The main export had been wheat shipped to England. At that time in history, the Great Plains in the United States was producing wheat so inexpensively that the Danish farmers could not compete. Hans Christian Anderson helped groups of farmers set up a co-op poultry processing and marketing organization. Others served the farmer process and export their pork. This made the farmers prosperous again.

I left Odensee heading north east to the location of the only Viking ship to be found on Danish soil. It was excavated down to the impression that the boards of the hull made in the mud before they rotted away. There were bones of horses and dogs that were sacrificed to go with the captain who had died in his journey to Valhalla. The lack of human bones indicated to me that his crew turned down the chance to go to Valhalla with the captain.

That night found me bathing in the ocean before sleeping in a wheat field. I shaved the next morning while standing knee deep in the ocean. I found that salty seawater is not compatible with a comfortable shave.

I had a flat tire somewhere on that island. Having a pump but no patching material, I walked into a country store. I tried to find an English speaking person but none was to be had. I soon found that the German word for bicycle was understood in Denmark. I resorted to sign language to get what I wanted. Picking up a nail, I made motions of thrusting it through a bicycle tire which they had for sale. They seemed to understand completely when I pointed outside to my bike with a flat tire.

On another occasion, I stopped at a gas station because I was concerned about a squeak in the hub of the front wheel. I asked for oil using the German word, ërl. Looked puzzled so I asked a second time. He asked, “Erl for der Farrad?”

“Ya,” I replied using my limited German vocabulary, “ërl for der Farrad.”

He shook his head in amazement and/or disbelief. I motioned for him to come with me. We went into the shop where I pointed to an oil can. He laughed as he nodded and said “Oile.” Had I asked in English, I would likely would have been understood the first time.

I later learned that øl which sounds like ërl is the Danish word for beer. He might have been able to get “oiled up” on beer but apparently didn’t think it would work for the bike. I awoke the third morning many miles from Copenhagen. That day found me covering more than a hundred kilometers and crossed by ferry boat to the largest Danish island. The capitol, Copenhagen, is located in the eastern part of this island. By the way, Denmark is composed of nearly 200 islands, only about fifty of which are large enough to be inhabited.

I slept for the next couple of nights on a luggage cart in the Copenhagen train station. I would shave and wash up in the rest room. I was interested in seeing Skogsburg where the Adventist Church had established a medical facility some seventy years earlier.

On Friday, I met by plan an army friend, Calvin McCleary, from Munich. He was an African-American (He was called a black in those days.) He invited me to a meal in a restaurant. We were seated at a table next to the front window. Seeing a black man in Denmark was apparently an unusual sight in those days. The sidewalk was soon choked with people staring at him.

We agreed to take a night ferry boat to Malmö, Sweden and go to church there. My bike was a problem. Where could I leave it for safekeeping while I was in Sweden. I checked with a storage place only to find that it would cost an amount equal to the entire amount I had for my time in Denmark. There must be another way. Then I hit on a plan. I rode out to Skogsburg, checking my bike as luggage for a very small fee beyond the cost of my ticket for the train ride back into Copenhagen. I didn’t pick up the bike until my return from Sweden. It was well cared for.

Calvin’s presence created a bit if a stir in church. He may have been the first person of his skin color to attend that particular church. A man who ran a printing business invited us to the noon meal at his home. He also invited the pastor and his wife. The pastor had gone to school in the United States so was able to translate for us. The Scandinavian languages use some form of the word, Tak, for thank you. They were saying, “Tak-tak” as the passed bowls and plates of food around the table. Laughter broke out when Calvin said, “Tick-tock.”

Calvin and I stayed overnight in Malmö at the home of the printer. They showed us around the city before taking us to meet the ferry for out trip back. I exchanged Christmas cards with the printer and his family for a dozen years or more.

I spent Monday riding out to a town that contained the House of Seven Gables. It may or may not have been authentic but I found it interesting. I slept a few hours on a baggage cart before hading back to catch the all day ferry to Aalborg.

Aalborg is northernmost city on the Jutland peninsula. It was near that place where My great-grandfather was born in 1845. His son and my grandfather, Albert Peterson was thrilled to see a picture I took of a Dutch type windmill that Grandpa remembered hearing his father tell about. It was built, not to pump water as in Holland, but to grind grain. It was being used as a tool shed when I saw it. It was a thrill to find the foundations stones of what I was told was the house in which Nels Peterson was born.

My memories of the trip back to Munich are connected with hunger. I had about a hundred miles to ride before reaching Flensborg on the Danish border. I ate my last food for breakfast before starting out. I did find a couple of sugar beets along the way. They were most welcome as I had no money to purchase any food.

I enjoyed being in Denmark. I enjoyed crossing the entire country from west to east as well as from north to south. The odometer on my bike showed a bit more than 800 km which is 500 miles.

As much as I enjoyed Denmark, it was good to be back in Germany where I could communicate, at least at a basic level, with working class people. It felt good to stop a man on the street and ask, “Wo ist der banhof, bitte?”and be given instructions to find the railroad station.

I had most of a day to spend in Flensborg. No wanting to miss any sight seeing time, I rode out of town to try to find any descendants of ancestors on my mother’s side of the family. I found people with the same family name. A few remembered my ancestors but no one knew what happened to them. The last time my mother’s grandmother had a letter from her German relatives was in 1939 or, perhaps, 1940. The letter didn’t give any information. It did, however, contain the message that the stamp on the letter might well become valuable to a stamp collector and suggested that it should be very carefully steamed off the envelope. Under the stamp were the words, “We are starving.” All future letters to the German relatives were returned as undeliverable.

I arrived back at the Flensborg railroad station to begin a long, hungry train ride to Munich. I added another word to my limited German vocabulary while changing trains in Hamburg. I have never been one to like asking for instructions for how to get somewhere. I looked at the train schedule painted on the wall of the station like I was used to seeing in Munich. I could see a column for the destinations and another for the departure times. There was another column labeled, Bansteig which I assumed to be the same as the word Gleis which appeared on the wall in Munich. Wrong. Gleis meant “track” in English. I went out, counted the tracks and missed my train. Bansteig meant “platform” and there were two tracks at each platform. That mistake cost me another five hours of hunger before reaching Munich.

I was happy to see that I got back just in time for midnight chow which was served to meet the needs of those working at night as I often did. I changed in to my medic whites, picked up a midnight chow pass and enjoyed a meal that tasted better than any other meal I had during my entire two years in the army.

Someone asked me if I would be willing to do it again. My reply was, “Yes, yes, just give me a chance!”