Fritz Goedekimeyer, in a hurry, on the “Todestrasse” was a once in a lifetime experience that no one in their right mind would want to do twice. We got stopped at one of the speed traps east of Sarajevo. A line of 15 or so western cars were waiting to be fleeced as we were flagged to the side to wait our turn. Fritz got out of the car for a moment the jumped back in and took off, passing the line of stopped cars, pulling directly to the front of the line where 3 police “Yugos” were parked.
I was just getting over the shock of him ignoring the instructions from armed communist police officers when he again jumped out of the car and made a beeline toward a rather obese police officer shouting what sounded like obscenities. The fat cop turned to Fritz and responded with an equally evil sounding tirade until the two were within reach at which time they embraced. The pucker in my butt relaxed just a little.
The two of them came back to the car where I was introduced and told to get 3 bottles of Beam for the nice police officer. I guess when you bribe your way out of a police check-points enough times with the same cops, the charade isn’t necessary any more. It becomes a simple business transaction. As we left, Fritz told the old cop “see you next time” to which the cop responded “cigaretten, bring cigaretten… goddamn Russian cigaretten are stale”. It was no wonder Fritz moved so easily in the east, he knew who to bribe and what they wanted, hell…. he took orders. I had a feeling he learned this skill from the Roma.
We arrived at the Yugoslavian side of Turnu Severein where it seems Fritz had a couple friends amongst the border officers; what a surprise. As soon as one of the officers saw him it was a repeat of the checkpoint. Fritz was an unusual man. He had strong beliefs but never vocalized them. His actions were the only way you knew. He did certain things as if by obligation. He would never pass a beggar without dropping a coin and he was always respectful to women and protective of children. After Jethro’s wedding Fritz never addressed me as anything but Jinnik, he used my Roma name the rest of the time I knew him and he treated me completely different when Púrodad accepted me. It was as if I was now a blood relation. It was a little creepy at first.
Fritz suggested I walk the rest of the way across the bridge to the Romanian side but one of the border guards said no foot traffic was allowed. Turnu Severein was a commercial crossing, mostly big trucks. It was too dangerous for foot traffic. I was gonna get to drive Fritz’s new car. It was less than a mile on a clear evening with no traffic…. What could go wrong?
We pulled everything out of the Daimler that had any connection to Fritz and I put the money and some Jim Beam in the front seat then set out for the Romanian side. This could turn out incredibly bad. I could end up on the watch list and banned from Romania. I slowly rolled up to the first check-point and the Romanian guard asked me if my visit was business or tourism. I simply showed him the money. He directed me to a parking area where another guard was waiting; he never looked at my papers.
The second guard was an officer, I think he was a major but I can’t remember exactly. I do remember he was three sheets to the wind when we got there. I asked for the family to be returned and offered half the cash I had with me. He gladly took the cash and then took me to see the family. He never agreed to their release, he just took the money and gave it to another guard who took it in the office. This was a bad sign. It meant that there was a gaggle of border guards in on this one. All of them would need to be satisfied for them to agree to release the family.
I immediately recognized the child and woman, I had not met the man or the older kid but I could tell they were crumbling under the pressure. I needed to get them off the border as soon as possible. Once the Major had shown me they were OK and that he still had them; he asked what else I had to trade. I saw it coming so I split up the rest of the cash before I got there. I offered it to him incrementally. He gladly accepted each offer but still didn’t agree to their release. He told me he had to talk to his men. They had a stake in this. I was out of bargaining power.
I waited in fritz’s car for the better part of an hour until the Major returned. He climbed into the passenger seat and told me they wanted $5000 more. I had about $3000 in a pouch hanging around my neck but even if it had been enough, we needed it to get home. I tried to tell him I didn’t have it, he said “get it”. The guard changed at 0600hrs, less than 12 hours later and once the shift changed the number of palms to lubricate would increase at least by the number of command personnel in the new shift.
I had no intention of trying to come up with $5k in western currency on a Sunday afternoon in eastern Yugoslavia, although I’m sure Fritz had a friend somewhere who had it available. I turned the stereo on and opened a bottle of Beam. I took a short touch and handed it to the Major. “Tovarich153; tell me what we can do… here and now… So I leave with them?”
I could see what the major was thinking and I got a cold chill. NO! Not Fritzy’s new car. I reluctantly held the keys out and as he reached for them I withdrew… “we leave now… Yes?” He smiled and said; “Tovarich; Why are you still here… you are taking up space on my border…?” I dropped the keys in his hand and got out of the car.
The Major spoke to one of the other guards and a few moments later the family emerged from the holding cell and a Romanian guard pulled the camper up and handed me the keys. Slowly the realization of what I had done was setting in. The man and his wife were in a state of jubilee but all I felt was impending doom. In less than a mile I was going to have to tell a possibly intoxicated Fritz Goedekimeyer, a former world class boxer, an ex-SS Paratrooper and the Baddest, Toughest, Meanest 60 year old I ever met…that I gave his new car to a drunken Romanian Border Officer.
I should have known Fritz would not get buzzed even if his Yugo buddies were hard at it. He came out and met the camper as I pulled in up to the checkpoint. I could see he still expected to see his car bringing up the rear. A questioning look appeared on his lumpy face when he realized I was driving and all four of the family was with me. I got out of the camper and Fritz grabbed me. “Please Gideon, tell me you did not do what you are about to tell me you did.” He could see this was not possible.
After a quick papers check and a tirade of jokes from Fritz’s Yugo friends directed at Fritz and his lost car, we left with Fritz at the wheel. I waited a few moments then climbed up into the passenger seat. Fritz didn’t even turn his head. “Jinnik… Who told you could sit up here? In-the-Back!” I sheepishly climbed back into the sleeping area of the van. The little boy moved over next to me and comforted me with “don’t worry your dad can’t stay mad forever, mine always gets over it”, he then offered me a deck of UNO cards to play with. His innocence made me feel good.
He was right, Fritz and I were best of buds again by the time we hit the first police speed trap on the way home.
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