It was late June in 1975 and I was in a small, hilly German town along the Rhine, in the midst of a month-long European jaunt in which I was charged with minding my young niece and nephew. We’d just had a long lunch at a snazzy riverside restaurant, and the highlight was a bottle of Trockenbeerenauslese, liquid silver that my brother rhapsodized over, proclaiming it the finest German wine he’d ever sampled. I didn’t complain, since wine at one p.m. was outstanding (along with the huge chunks of pork smothered in red cabbage), but I’d be fibbing by claiming I captured any nuances whatsoever in the cherished Trock.
While my brother and sister-in-law either napped or went to a tiny museum—can’t recall now—I took the kids for a walk into the town near our hotel. The gardens were splendid, and for some goofy, and perhaps embarrassing, reason, I remembered that a few years earlier I’d been taken by a rather silly Robert Frost poem from 1928, “The Rose Family.” It’s short, and reads: “The rose is a rose,/And was always a rose./But the theory now goes/That the apple’s a rose,/and the pear is, and so’s/The plum, I suppose/The dear only knows/What will next prove a rose./You, of course, are a rose/But were always a rose.”
Corny, right? Well, who didn’t have youthful literary lapses? At least I wasn’t bamboozled, like many of my hippie contemporaries, by Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet—pure mush—or the Jesus craze that hit my high school in ’71 for about five weeks. Anyway, toting a Minolta 35mm, I had my eight-year-old niece pose with any number of roses, and the result was the accompanying photo, which, in retrospect, looks sort of racy, innocent intent notwithstanding. My sister-in-law was not amused by the print I sent her later in the summer, tossing off a volley of hilarious brickbats that are best left to history.
The kicker of that day, though, came hours later. I was at a cheap chicken and fries dump with the kids for dinner, and, while ordering another brew, suddenly my brother came in, and whisked us away to the one-star restaurant nearby where he and his wife were dining. This was unusual, since it was mid-meal, but his excitement was palpable: “Pal, I’ve just had the best beer of my life, and couldn’t deny you the pleasure—right now—of having your own schooner. Now, this was 1975, way before microbrews and the globalization of all potable items, so when I sat at the bar and waited five minutes for the cranky barkeep to pull my own glass of Pilsner Urquell, I wondered what all the fuss was about. I soon found out, and while somewhat disturbed that this beer (a beverage I knew something about, unlike wine) came from Czechoslovakia, it really was an astounding LSD trip for the tastebuds. I had another, and then returned the next day for a couple more, before leaving Germany for Oslo.
That fall, back at college in Baltimore, I went to a gourmet liquor store to seek out Pilsner Urquell, bought a couple of 12 oz. bottles, and of course, it tasted like piss, stale and was probably sitting on a shelf for several months. No matter: I remembered that first sip, all those roses and, not incidentally, the pair of light blue sneaker-shoes (the kind that Mick Jagger wore on the Stones’ Exile on Main Street tour in ’72) that I bought for a song in an obscure alleyway store in Copenhagen.