Snapshots In The Mind

From time to time, I’ve liked to post some memories of those whom I’ve come across during life. I had a neighbor who was a character – I seem to gravitate towards characters – people who like to carve their own path through life instead of blindly following the paths of others. And I thought that most of the time, these “snapshots” – memories held and cherished to be occasionally revisited by the owners, leave us when the owner leaves us, never to be known by others.

Several of these friends, in telling me their stories, had me at the time believing silently that it was “hyperbole”. My neighbor was telling me that he enlisted in the Marines when he was 16 during WW2 (there were a few who did that). He was at Tarawa and Saipan. Then after WW2, recalled to Korea where he was one of the “Frozen Chosin”. I thought this was hyperbole, until he invited me to a Chosin Reunion. There were a couple of Army guys there too. He liked to remind me that it took a Marine General who took the place of the Army General to finally get them out and not be slaughtered by the vastly bigger invading Chinese force.

He would tell me things that one who lived by lies about service would not say. They are always about their “heroism” and made up units.

Anyway, we used to sit in front with a couple of beers (wondering if the neighbors thought we were a motley crew), and talk about some of our “snapshots”, although his military snapshots were a lot more interesting than mine.

There was the time that his unit was in New Zealand, ready to go to some island. They would assemble in New Zealand. They are in a long row, and the Infantry Weapons Officer, called a Gunner, (a rank that I told him didn’t exist in the Army), is addressing them, telling them what to expect.

Sometime during his address, a flock of ducks or geese are flying overhead. And in this long row, one Marine is looking up, then another. Temptation overcame discipline, and one shot was heard. Then another, and another until the entire row was firing up at the flock.

And not one bird dropped.

The Gunner, of course, was livid.

“I don’t know what makes me madder! The fact that you all broke discipline, or the fact that not one of you #$%^ hit anything!”

I was asking Speed what patrols in those South Pacific Jungles were like. His real name was Meryl, but nobody called him Meryl. He brought up something that I suppose nobody who hadn’t been there would even consider.

That when you were on patrol, in single file, if you had to go, you just went…in your fatigues. To go out and stop to relieve yourself and find a place would invite death from a sniper.

Speed’s probably gone now, but there are a couple of his memories for posterity.

I already wrote about Bob, who said that he was an early Porsche factory driver. I didn’t know what to believe, until I went to his home and saw what was maybe 50-75 trophies from the 50s in Europe.

They are all gone now, save for their stories.

What prompted me to write today was yet another story, told by another member of our Club. It’s one of those stories that would mean nothing, unless you know some auto racing history.

I’ll tell this small story first, then tell you a little bit about the subject.

As far as I know, Jack is still with us, and while I doubt that he would have any objections to my retelling his story, Jack it will be, without a surname.

In the mid 1950s, he was in the US Army, stationed in Germany. And one cold snowy night, he went to the PX. Someone asked me the other day what a “PX” – a Post Exchange – was, and for Army and Air Force personnel, think of it like a Target store on a smaller scale. The Navy and Marines have the same thing, called a BX (for Base Exchange).

And in Germany at that time, and perhaps other European countries with a PX, Daimler-Benz was anxious in an immediate post war economy to earn some American dollars. They would bring their model line-up to various PXs to take some orders – everything from a humble 180D to the mighty 300SL. I think if memory serves me right they called it the “cavalcade of cars”. But don’t hold me to that. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.

So one dark cold evening about 1955, Jack entered the PX and noticed an older man in a dark overcoat standing by the doorway, obviously cold.

Then, as now, only those with a valid military ID are allowed inside.

Jack spoke a moment with the man, then invited him in as his guest.

He bought him a cup of coffee, and the man was grateful. After the visit, the man offered him a ride “in a special car”.

It was a 300SL, just introduced, and the older man was Rudi Caracciola, who was the leading driver for Daimler-Benz driving the famous “Silver Arrows” during the 1930s. Along with his titles, he was considered “The Regenmeister – Rain Master” – for his driving during a deluge.

Since it was a snowy night I doubt that Rudi drove that car to its capabilities.

Rudi would leave us just 4 years later, and while I doubt the evening was memorable for him, it was for Jack. But who knows?

Maybe he remembered the kindness of a young American soldier.

A Bit More on Rudi

Three European Championships in Formula Grand Prix (1935-1937 and 1938) with the Mercedes-BenzW 25, W 125 und W 154; three European Hillclimb Championships (1930, 1931 and 1932) with the Mercedes-Benz SSK and the Alfa Romeo P3. In 1931 he is the protagonist of another feat: he becomes the first foreign driver to win the Mille Miglia. Not only: on January 28th 1938, Caracciola sets the speed record (432.7 km/h) on the highway connecting Frankfurt to Darmstad with a streamlined W125 Rekordwagen A still undefeated record.

On that 1938 Speed record of 268.7 MPH over a mile on a closed section of the Autobahn, that was the same time that his friend and rival Bernd Rosemeyer was killed later in the day driving his Auto Union. The 1930s were known (among more sinister things) of a great rivalry between Daimler Benz and Auto Union (which became Audi). If I remember the story right, a wind was coming up after Rudi’s run and he tried to talk Bernd out of driving that day.

Rosemeyer was killed during a land speed record attempt on a regular traffic route on the Autobahn between Frankfurt and Darmstadt on 28 January 1938.

Competing for the record against Rudolf Caracciola, Rosemeyer went out later in the day in his Auto Union streamliner, setting a new class record of 432 km/h (268 mph). In an effort to raise the record still higher, despite a report that wind was picking up, Rosemeyer took the streamliner again. After two preliminary runs he was on his third and final attempt at 11:47, when the car suddenly went out of control. Whether caught by a gust of wind or by an unforeseen aerodynamic effect, it skidded to the left onto the median, then right and off the highway, where it went airborne and collided with a bridge embankment. Rosemeyer was thrown out of the car as it somersaulted through the air; he died at the roadside.

[I don’t know who is considered the class winner as Caricciola also drove 268 mph, but most sources give it to Caricciola – his was 268.7?]

After the War Rudi was severely injured during qualification runs at Indianapolis. The track owner of many years, Tony Hulman, let him recuperate at his home for, I believe, 6 months.

 In his only appearance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1946 he suffered severe head injuries in an accident during time trials. Indeed, Caracciola would have died had not Speedway officials, in their relentless focus on safety, not demanded the German driver wear a proper helmet, which he had never previously done during his career. Caracciola, with his wife by his side, recuperated at the summer home of Speedway owner Tony Hulman for several months. Upon Caracciola’s death, his wife bequeathed his trophy collection to the Hulmans for safe keeping at the Hall of Fame Museum where it provides a beautiful display today.

If you go to Indianapolis, you have to stop at the Speedway. The museum, as I recall, is in the middle. I was surprised, too, how narrow the track was. His trophies are all there and it is an impressive assortment. Although I must say so many had swastikas, it seemed a bit strange. But Rudi was no Nazi.

I might add, finally, that those races during the 30s with the Silver Arrows (so-named because during one race, a Mercedes was deemed 1 kg or so too heavy and race manager Alfred Neubauer ordered the white paint stripped, leaving the shiny aluminum bodywork) – but my hat’s off to all of those drivers. Picture a car capable of going close to 200 mph with over 600 hp on what we’d consider a rudimentary suspension, on skinny bias-ply tires, no seat belts, no helmets, no roll bar. No fuel cells.

The Englishman Richard Seaman had a horrible lingering death, being burned severely at Spa in 1939. He was considered to be Britain’s first great GP driver.

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