The Volkswagen was almost six years old. I had planned to buy something new, or at least newer, about six months before it was time to go home from German. But after a wire broke and the engine quit, stranding me on a foggy autobahn night, I decided it was time to start looking for another car.
At that time I was an adjutant, the battalion CO's principal paper-pusher, in charge of everything that had to do with manpower and personnel. Our unit operated the communications links between air defense missile sites guarding Western Europe's airspace. We kept microwave and shortwave radio systems on the air around the clock. It meant that my headquarters went to the field only once a year and my duty schedule was very predictable. I went into the office at eight and was home in our two-bedroom apartment by five-thirty, and rarely had to work evenings.
On Friday night, after services, I asked an Air Force chaplain then serving his third tour in Germany, if he could recommend a local car dealer.
"Sure," he said "I've bought four or five cars from Werner Herrmann. A mensch. And he’s part Jewish."
"Oh, he’s not observant. But he had a Jewish great-grandmother, and that was enough that during the war, although they were Lutherans, his family made him join the Navy. They didn't seem to care that he was one-sixteenth Jewish. That got him through the war."
"And he's an honest man?"
"Honest as any car dealer I know," said the rabbi.
Herrmann was a perpetually smiling man in his fifties, not very tall. Almost bald, he carefully combed a few remaining strands of dark hair across the vast expanse of his scalp. He spoke colloquial English with the merest trace of an accent. Herrmann showed me around his lot, but most of the two dozen cars he had were about the same age as my VW.
"And what would strike your fancy, Captain?" asked Herrmann.
"Maybe a BMW or a Mercedes. Something two or three years old."
“A tough order. We Germans take care of our cars, and we tend to keep them a long time. Why don't you consider a new Mercedes?"
"I'm not sure I could afford one. And, I'm told, it takes as much as a year to get one. They build each car to order."
"That's true. But there might be a way to get one faster. In two or three months, more or less, if you can wait that long."
"How can I get a new Mercedes that quick?"
"Well, sometimes a car is delivered, and the buyer changes his mind. He doesn't like the color, or he's not satisfied with the options."
"Wait a year for a car, then send it back because of the color?"
"Absolutely. And at other times, a car will be built for export, but then the deal goes bad and the dealer doesn't have a customer. So he has either to front the money himself and hope to sell the car, or cancel the order. Because once they accept an order, the factory must build the car.”
"And every year there are also a few cars that are delivered, and accepted, and then the owner for some reason decides he doesn't like it. We Germans are very finicky about some things, you know."
"So there's something wrong with these cars?"
"No. Not usually. It's more like, he doesn't like the upholstery, or his wife doesn't, or he thinks he should have ordered a bigger engine, or a smaller one, something like that. And so these cars come back to the factory with a few thousand kilometers on them. That's nothing for a Mercedes. Not even starting to wear in. So they have to resell them."
"And you can get one of them?"
"I have a friend, a broker. He puts buyers and sellers together."
That week I visited all the used car lots near Kaiserslautern, but none offered anything better than basic transportation. I'd replaced the broken wire on my VW and it was running fine; I was almost ready to forget about a new car. Then Herrmann called. He had a nearly-new Mercedes. Less than five thousand kilometers, metallic blue with gray upholstery, a five-speed manual transmission, and a sunroof. Was I interested?
"How much?” I asked.
"About $5,600," he said. “In Deutschmarks, of course.”
That was a healthy sum for us. But the moment that I saw the car, I fell in love with it. It was more car than I had ever hoped to own, and it was $1,000 less than a new one. There was one tiny flaw, something few would even notice: a piece of chrome below the trunk said 280SE, meaning that the car had fuel injection, while in actuality, the car was a 280S, with conventional carburetion.
I gave Herrmann a deposit, called my bank in Maryland and got a loan, and four days later I was driving a Mercedes. A wonderful window opened. I went on weekend trips to the great cities of Europe—to Antwerp, Paris, Amsterdam, and Munich—flashing down the autobahn in comfort and safety at almost 100 mph.
About two months after the Mercedes came into our lives, a little man in a large floppy felt hat and a brown suit, shiny from too many ironings, marched into my office, followed by a uniformed cop, one of the biggest men I have ever seen. The little man held out a worn leather case with a German police identification card. Its photo showed a man with a cruel mouth, small, soulless eyes, a falcon's nose far too big for its face, and bushy hair. There was no hair on the head of the man standing before me, quivering with excitement. Aside from that, he was unmistakably the same person. Shivering with apprehension, I felt like I had suddenly yanked from my world of military order into a movie, and I couldn’t find the script.
"You are Herr Hauptman Norman Farkas?" he said with a thick, guttural accent, like a character from a Dashiell Hammett movie.
"Yes, I'm Captain Farkas. What I can I do for you?"
"You are the owner of Mercedes-Benz Model 280, engine number aye arr, one, eight, one, seven, seven, four, nine, one?"
"Well, maybe. I don't know the engine number. What's this about?"
"This automobile is in your possession at this time?"
"Out in the parking lot. What is this about, please?"
"We will inspect this automobile now."
"Can you tell me what this is about?"
"We will inspect this automobile, NOW!"
I got up and followed the little man out into the parking lot, the uniformed cop trailing us. When I got to my car, I read off the number from a plate on the dashboard.
"Ja," said the little man, consulting a notebook. "We will return to your office now." He snapped the notebook shut and put it in his breast pocket.
"Would you mind telling me what this is all about?"
"We WILL return to your office NOW!" he bellowed.
Back in my office, bursting with curiosity, I asked again, “What is this all about?"
"You will sit down, please."
"Sure, but what is this about? Something wrong?"
"YOU WILL SIT DOWN!"
"Hauptman Herr Norman Farkas, I officially inform you that Mercedes-Benz Model 280, serial number aye arr, one, eight, one, seven, seven, four, nine, one is a stolen vehicle. You will not attempt to remove it from the Federal Republic of Germany. You will not attempt to sell it. You are NOT a suspect in any crime. You will hear from us."
Without another word, the little man turned on his heel and marched out of my office, trailed by the monster in uniform.
I sat, stunned, for several minutes. Then I called the office of the Staff Judge Advocate, where a neighbor of mine worked.
"Ken, Norm Farkas. I just had the weirdest visitor. German cop. Says my Mercedes is a stolen car."
"You're my sixth today. And four yesterday,” he said.
"Holy shit. Does that mean I'm screwed? Am I going to lose the car?"
"Looks that way. But don't do anything until I tell you. I'm sorry this happened, I know how much you like your new car."
"Let me know if you hear anything."
I dialed the prefix for an outside line. Maybe Herrmann knew what was going on. I let the phone ring for five minutes, but there was no answer. I tried again at half-hour intervals, but still, no one answered. At five I locked up my desk and drove to Herrmann's lot. The gates were padlocked, and a strip of orange tape ran across the office door. Something was posted on the door, but it was too far to read. I drove to the police station to see my boss's poker pal, an English-speaking traffic investigator.
"I'm trying to find Werner Herrmann," I said. "You know, the car dealer?"
"Try the jail. But I doubt they allow him visitors."
I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. "Jail?"
"You bought one of that Jew's 'almost new' Mercedes?"
I nodded, not trusting my voice.
"Too bad. A terrible mess, this is."
As the story in Overseas Weekly explained, a week later, at least 89 American soldiers were victims of the scam, which took advantage of a loophole in the German automobile registration system. When a German bought a used car, he took the title–-a little gray book–to a police station, where the car's engine number was punched into a terminal linked to a nationwide computer system. If ownership was verified, the buyer was allowed to register. But there was no way for the US military to access the computer system; repeated requests to do just that were turned down by the Bonn government, which regarded US access to their computer as an infringement of German sovereignty. So those in the American military needed only a bill of sale to get a US Forces license plate.
As the story explained, a German mastermind had hired several Yugoslavian mechanics and told them to find jobs in Mercedes dealerships. They secretly copied keys to cars brought in for servicing, and at the first opportunity stole the cars from their owners. The cars were driven to a farm in the Harz Mountains, where superficial changes were made to each. For example, the article said, optional chrome trim might be switched between two cars. The cars were wholesaled to dealers who dealt with Americans and provided with authentic-looking title books purchased illegally from wrecking yards, each with a forged page replacing the one with the engine number.
I contacted my insurance company. So sorry, they said, but my policy didn't cover a clouded title. I wrote my bank and explained the situation. A very nice loan officer telephoned to say that while I still had to pay the $5,000 I'd borrowed, they would give me two additional years to pay, and they would lower the interest rate one point.
A few days after that, a terse note arrived by Bundespost, the German postal system, from the city police. I was ordered to deliver the Mercedes to a town about 250 miles away.
I called Ken again. He told me that the Kaiserslautern High Court had no jurisdiction over me. The provisions of a decades-old treaty between the US and the Federal Republic of Germany held that all civil actions between a US serviceman and any agency of the German government must begin by the Germans notifying the US Ambassador, who would forward the complaint through military channels to the soldier’s commander. The commander would then communicate back to the Ambassador, through channels, a response to the charge. The disposition of each case would take place between representatives of the respective national governments.
“So I don’t have to surrender the car?” I asked Ken.
“Technically, no. But in reality, the local authorities will arrest you, hold you in a prison for up to a week, and then notify the US Ambassador. They will then release you and apologize. But, they will keep the car. So the question is, do you want to spend a week or so in jail?”
I wrote the police a polite letter informing them that my military duties didn't permit me to deliver the car to the place they asked. About a week later I got a curt note telling me the bailiff of the Kaiserslautern High Court would contact me to make arrangements to pick it up.
At 11:00 Saturday morning the doorbell rang and there was a thin, balding man in baggy workman’s clothing shifting his feet awkwardly as he handed me a police document in English and German. "Please give me the car keys," he said.
The license plates were US Forces property. I had to turn them back to the Provost Marshal. "I have to take off the license plates," I replied.
The man became agitated. "But Herr Hauptman, I am a civil employee. I have no authorization to drive a car without plates."
"Then you have a problem. The plates belong to the US Government."
He scratched his head. "Take them, then. I'll be back in one hour."
He returned with a lowboy, a big tractor-trailer with a rear ramp. The plates under my arm, I gave him the keys and watched my car vanish.
In the next few days, I got together with other victims of the "Hot Wheels Club" and retained a German attorney to sue Herrmann. The lawyer wasn't optimistic. "He owns nothing in his own name except a few old cars. The business property is leased. Everything else belongs to his wife. But we will see," he said, shrugging as if to say "don't expect too much."
In the end, all I got out of Herrmann was one of the cars on his lot, a shabby, ten-year-old Opal Cadet worth maybe $500.
The same week, I came down on orders for Korea. I was to depart in early November; a brief leave en route was authorized. Then I got a notice from the High Court. I was to pay 101.50 Deutschmarks–about $35–for the truck that the bailiff used to haul the Mercedes away. I threw the notice away. A week later, a second one came. I threw it away, as I did the third, which came five days after the second.
With six days until my departure, I had my household goods packed and shipped, turned my government furniture back to Quartermaster, and spent my days briefing my replacement;
On the morning of my fifth-to-last day, I got a special delivery letter at the office. The court ordered me to pay the 101.50 marks within seven days or face arrest. I was pissed. I mean, I was the victim here. I was the one out $5,000. I sat down at an office typewriter and spent the whole day writing and re-writing a three-page letter to the court.
The first page, in summary, said: "Fuck you, we won the war." The second page explained that none of this could have happened if the German government had let the US Forces check vehicle ownership in their stupid computer and that because of the Status of Forces Treaty, the Kaiserslautern High Court lacked jurisdiction to compel me to do anything.
The last page explained that I was the victim; it was unreasonable to charge me this fee, and I wasn't going to pay.
It was a good letter and I felt much better after writing it. I made only one mistake. I mailed it, forgetting about the Bundespost's excellent, overnight service to even the most distant corners of the country.
The day before my scheduled departure, I left the office at noon and went by the PX for some last-minute purchases. The PX manager found me in the toiletries section. "Your colonel is on the phone," he said.
"Six of the toughest-looking German cops I've ever seen just left my office," said my battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hughes. "They have a warrant for your arrest. What the hell did you say in that letter?"
I told him.
"If they can't take a joke, I guess I'll just pay the damn thirty-five dollars," I said.
"Too late for that. They've got a list of charges."
"What am I supposed to have done, defamed the great German people with my little nastygram?"
"Don't try to be cute, Farkas. It doesn't suit you."
"I didn't read the whole list. One said you could get four years. Now maybe it's all bull, but you don't want to test them on this. I called your buddy, Ken something—"
"At the Staff Judge Advocate?"
"Yeah. He said to take the warrant very seriously. And he said the smartest thing to do is not get arrested. So don't go back to your quarters. Don't come to the office. Stay away from all the gasthauses. Get lost until dark, then go to Major Ashe's house.”
Ashe was the battalion executive officer. He had a French wife, who was a glorious cook, and I had often dined at his table. "Yes, sir. About three miles out of Landstuhl, the south road."
"Good. Stay there tonight. I'll have someone go by your quarters and pick up your gear. I'll get you to the airport."
Hughes came for me just at first light in a camouflaged jeep with half a dozen radio antennae bobbing from it. His driver stowed my suitcase and duffle bag in a two-wheeled, canvas-topped trailer behind his jeep. I got in the back seat. Avoiding the autobahn, we drove back roads to Frankfurt, a route over 100 miles longer than the autobahn route, to Rhein-Main Air Force Base near Frankfurt.
It was late afternoon and light snow was falling as we neared the air base. The base shared runways with Frankfurt International Airport; one side of the field had a military terminal and aerial port facilities, the other housed their civilian counterparts.
Colonel Hughes took my paperwork and walked it through the Military Airlift Command (MAC) formalities while I hid behind canvas side curtains in the jeep.
As I waited. the snow became heavier, the day gloomier. Three Mercedes-Benz diesel sedans, painted in dark green with a broad, wrap-around band of black-and-white squares, pulled up to the terminal. Six large, uniformed and armed policeman and a tiny man in a brown suit and a floppy felt hat ran inside.
I felt the terror that drove thousands from Germany a generation earlier. What if they catch me? Will I go to jail? Did someone tell them that I'm a Jew?
Minutes later, Hughes returned with a conspiratorial gleam in his eye and handed me a boarding pass. He directed the driver on a roundabout route through the base. Eventually, we were on an unpaved access road near the end of a runway. The driver backed the jeep deep into a copse of trees bordering the runway and shut the engine off. In minutes snow completely covered the jeep. Then, abruptly, it stopped. The skies cleared.
But the runways were strangely frozen. Every few minutes, a plane landed. But none took off. The German police were searching the terminal, boarding every departing aircraft and looking at every passenger.
We sat in the frigid woods for over an hour before departures resumed. Plane after plane moved past us to the end of the runway, turned into the wind, and took off into the starry night. Finally, a huge Saturn Airlines Boeing 727 lumbered down the runway toward us, slowing before rocking to a halt in front of our hidden jeep. The landing lights flashed once, twice, three times.
"That's you," said Colonel Hughes, and flashed the jeep headlights three times.
"How the hell did you arrange that?" I asked.
"None of your business," said Hughes. "Wait until he turns around."
The plane turned slowly on its landing gear until the tail pointed at our jeep. "Now," said Hughes. "Good luck, Farkas. Let me hear from you."
"How can I ever thank you, sir?"
"Remember me in your memoirs. And next time, don't mail the letter."
"Thanks again, sir."
"Get out there before he leaves without you."
As I stepped out of the jeep, a hatch below the Boeing's tail opened. A stairwell ramp descended to jet-melted slush. I picked my way carefully, getting snow in my shoes, avoiding the deeper drifts, until I reached concrete. Headlights swept across the plane from the access road. Two dark sedans sped towards the woods, diesel engines chattering above the roar of idling jets. Flashing blue lights and singsong sirens approached.
Slipping and sliding across the icy runway, I heard the shriek of brakes. Car doors slammed. Heavy boots crunched snow.
Silhouetted by glaring headlamps, indistinct shapes ran toward me from the darkness.
Stomach churning, heart racing, I reached the ramp, soaked with sweat despite the freezing air. A male flight attendant threw my suitcase and duffel bag through the open hatch, and then shoved me up the stairs. The engines changed pitch, roaring with ferocious energy. As I entered the cabin and fell into an open seat, the plane rocked on its gear.
I thought I heard a shout as the hatch slammed shut behind me. Heads craned and eyes questioned as my trembling fingers wrestled with the seatbelt buckle. I felt the plane rolling forward. Still trying to catch my breath, we hurtled skyward. I let out a big sigh and silently thanked God for sending Colonel Hughes to save me from the Germans.
Across the aisle, a nicely dressed fortyish woman leaned toward me. “What was that?” she said. “Why didn’t you board from the terminal?”
A moment later a deep male voice announced that we had entered French airspace, and then a female flight attendant appeared to save me from answering.
“The captain would like to see you,” she said.
I followed her to the cockpit, and the captain shook my hand. “Dick Hughes was my West Point roommate for two years,” he said. “Lucky for you I saw him at the ticket counter.”
“I think you may have saved my life, sir,” I said.
“Naw. They’d have let you go after ten or twelve years,” he said, then laughed.
“What was in that letter you sent?”
© 1971 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, and short fiction, each offering a glimpse of my life and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.