Column: Face wash hockey Cold War style

Brad Ayers

Brad Ayers

As a young Army Ranger first lieutenant, I was stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga., in 1957 with the 3rd Infantry Division. The division was being transferred en masse to northern Bavaria, Germany, as an extension of the U.S. strategic planning to defend West Germany from increasingly bellicose threats from the Soviet Bloc Iron Curtain countries a short distance from where we would be located. Cold War tensions were at their height. Berlin had been blockaded by East German-Russian forces, and the infamous wall was under construction.
I was residing with my family, my wife and toddler son at Benning. In a logistical concept called Operation Gyroscope, our dependants were authorized to accompany us for what was projected as a three year tour of duty. Barring the outbreak of hostilities, the Germany-European assignment was choice at the time.
However, we were limited in what personal possessions we were allowed to bring — they had to be contained in a 8 by 8 by 8 foot steel shipping box know as a CONEX container. I had to sort through and box-up the most essential items for the extended duration in limited on-base housing. Everything else would remain in storage until we returned to the States. Basically, the Army gave us a suggested list of what we should bring. Despite the aggravation of sorting and packing, we were excited about the adventure of living in a foreign county.
Almost as an afterthought, just before the Army contractor picked up our packed boxes and footlockers, knowing we would be in a winter climate not unlike that of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, I put an old high school hockey stick and my skates in one of the jam-packed wardrobes going to Bavaria.
The move went surprisingly smoothly, and within a few days after our arrival in Bamberg, a short distance from the Czeck-German border, our possessions arrived from Benning. I put the hockey stick and my skates in a basement storage room, way too busy getting my family settled and taking on an assignment as a regimental operations officer drawing up plans to respond if the Soviet Bloc forces decided to invade west Germany.
As it has been almost every year when the winter Olympics get under way, I am reminded of an extraordinary competition that will never appear in any records.
I hadn’t played hockey since high school, four years earlier, but my assignment gave me the opportunity to travel in connection with my duties. When the first signs of winter appeared, I got the itch.
I discovered there were some informal, adult, quasi-military hockey groups near Munich. The 11th Airborne Division and 7th Special Forces were stationed in that area, and I had some contacts. They played several times a month on a few outdoor rinks and frozen ponds and lakes in and around Garmish, Bad Tolz and almost in the backyard of Hitler’s Berchtesgaden retreat. There were few indoor rinks at that time. It was a loosely organized gang of rink rats, something like our old-timer groups of this era. Anyone who showed up could play. I tried to get down there a couple times a month while monitoring cavalry unit border patrols.
What made this experience unique was that our alleged enemies from the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain — I have no idea who might have authorized this — would somehow convoy across the border to play the Americans. Ragtag at best, they would show up in military and civilian vehicles, always carrying weapons. Then they would stack arms, lace on their skates, and hit the ice. I know we played against teams from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, some even came from Poland, military types and border guards. This took lace in an atmosphere of cordiality and possibly without sanction of the Seventh Army command in Heidelberg.
We all played in military winter uniform, typically fatigues, with no protective equipment, although I finally scrounged up a pair of baseball shin guards. It was classic pond hockey. Later we came up with some baseball catcher equipment for the goalies.
The “visitors” were much better at the European style smaller ice surfaces and low or non-existent boards — which of course made for more body contact. What was so amazing is that there were very few real fights, which is extremely unusual as American hockey style goes.
No head gear or masks in those days, the typical reaction for a cheap shot was a face wash — I got to calling it Cold War wash. I received a few of those.
The games would usually last for a couple of hours or until the visitors decided it was time to call it quits. Then we would all go to a nearby gasthaus for beer. Our “arch” enemies never brought their weapons with, and we, of course, remained unarmed. And the established rule was talk hockey all you want, but never talk politics.
As the years have passed and I reflect upon this unusual personal experience, the Olympics take on so much meaning. Surrounded by a world fraught with hatred and divisiveness, maybe a simple game like put-together hockey can, for a few hours, bring people together. And, if you get your face washed, maybe that’s a wake-up.

Bradley Ayers is a Stillwater native who began writing for the Gazette while still in high school in 1952. Now 78 and semi-retired, he writes from his wilderness home near Frederic, Wisconsin. Ayers’ hardcover nonfiction book “Zenith Secret” is available at rosedogbooks.com.

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