Monday, April 25, 2016

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: The mouse, the elephant, and a clash of nonpareils ... part one.

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: The mouse, the elephant, and a clash of nonpareils ... part one.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

It is worth noting for the sake of posterity that I was not physically present at the precise moment when a failing “Ignoble” Roman’s Pizza franchise situated off Grant Line Road in New Albany, Indiana, quietly was shifted into the “local” column by the O’Connell family and redubbed Sportstime Pizza, setting into motion subsequent events that changed numerous lives (some perhaps even for the better), and subsequently led to what today is known as the New Albanian Brewing Company.

Such are the vagaries of serendipity. Human beings put great stock in planning and preparation, and to be sure, there are times when advance thinking genuinely matters. Yet, much of the time, little of it is relevant. The Fickle Finger of Fate makes the final call.

The reason for my absence in 1987 was a four-month European sojourn – my second such trip overall. It has taken more than a year to write the 33 chapters of Euro '85 (the postscript is yet to come), stretching from the 30th anniversary of my founding epic into the 31st. Seeing as 2017 marks three decades since the sequel, perhaps it's time to begin the next chronicle in a series intended to arrest the encroaching mists of an ever-more-distant past.

My 1987 overseas pilgrimage was divided into three rollicking acts, with ample time for education, recreation and debauchery: One month in Western Europe, with extended stays in Benelux, Switzerland, Austria and Italy; two months behind the Iron Curtain, including Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Hungary, the USSR, Poland and Czechoslovakia; and then a final month’s swath of perpetual motion danced with considerable glee through West Germany, France, Ireland and Denmark.

To this very day, I am amazed, humbled, enlightened and utterly stupefied by my good fortune, when considering the places seen, the experiences savored, and the people encountered while on the road in 1987. Three months in Europe in 1985 had taught me the helpful rudiments of budget travel, and in 1987, because the daily budgetary regimen was established as a habit of sorts, much more time remained to absorb, to cherish, to live and to drink the occasional beer for breakfast.

These many years later, there can be no doubt that the single most abiding outcome of my wandering the continent in 1987 is an enduring friendship with three fellows I met there. The three Danes of the apocalypse are Kim “Little Kim” Wiesener, Kim “Big Kim” Andersen and Allan Gamborg. I’ve now known them for more than half my life, an existence immeasurably enriched by their camaraderie in myriad ways too profuse to recount.

But my motive at present for name-checking the three Danes, and by extension, recalling the manner by which we became acquainted during the summer of 1987, is the drinking bout dubbed “The Battle of the Titans,” held at the venerable Copenhagen pub called the Mouse & Elephant (sadly, it has since gone out of business). I cannot verify the exact date of this grand spectacle, although a solid guess would be August 12, 1987.

It is a day that will live in enduring forgetfulness.


This story is inexorably intertwined with that of my high school and college classmate, and illustrious, longtime partner in mischief, Barrie Ottersbach, who occupied a formidable role in the narrative of that long-ago summer.

An unsuspecting Kim Wiesener was the tour leader for a “youth” travel group visiting the Soviet Union and Poland, and Barrie and I were enthusiastic, if only marginally youthful participants (we were 27 at the time).

Legend has it that Kim fell under Barrie’s spell (or was it the other way around?) on a hair-raising Aeroflot flight from Copenhagen to Moscow, where I had arranged to meet the remainder of the group, having arrived in the capital of Ronnie Raygun’s evil empire by way of a 36-hour train trip from Hungary, during which my sole company was a bag of fresh cherries, two loaves of bread, a sizable salami from Szeged, and two bottles of delectable Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood) wine.

Water? I can’t recall drinking any of it.

On the hazy morning following the boozy evening of the group’s belated arrival at the hotel, all of us were supposed to meet in the hotel lobby for orientation before setting out on a bus tour of Moscow. Kim was mildly concerned when Barrie failed to appear for roll call; I reassured him that all was well, and that Barrie was in safe hands, having ventured into the Soviet underworld with “Bill,” the friendly neighborhood black market sales representative whom I’d met earlier under similar circumstances the previous afternoon.

At that exact point, not even a full day into the excursion, Kim surely understood it would be a very long journey, but he was reassured when Barrie appeared later that afternoon, brandishing a softball-sized wad of colorfully useless rubles. For the remainder of our stay in the USSR, he grandly depleted this ridiculously huge bankroll on lavish restaurant meals, caviar, vodka and champagne; beer was difficult to find, and the rubles were non-convertible inside or outside the country. It was fling time, and fling we did.

For a brief time, Barrie himself occupied a crucial position on the fringe of the black market, a mirthful capitalist amid communism’s decay, profitably reselling his rubles back into hard currency for those members of our group who were too frightened, squeamish or senselessly law-abiding to trade on the streets.

Our introductory lesson in entrepreneurial initiative thus completed, we moved on to Leningrad by overnight sleepless express train just in time for an impromptu Fourth of July celebration. Kim, Barrie and I gathered on the grassy, mosquito-infested bank of an urban canal, a scene made complete when a bottle of the finest Russian vodka materialized from Kim’s backpack. Illuminated by the White Nights, we were introduced for the first time to Allan Gamborg, who coincidentally was passing through the city with a tour group of his own.

Ominously, as the bottle was passed around from person to person, its silky contents ingested without any semblance of a chaser, Kim and Allan began speaking in hushed tones about Denmark’s answer to Barrie: Kim Andersen, hereafter to be known as Big Kim. Their descriptions of Big Kim were offered to us in impeccable English, although occasionally they would lapse into Danish or even Russian in search of the proper words to explain this larger-than-life phenomenon from their homeland.

We scratched our heads and made mental notes.

Would we meet Big Kim, and if so, where?

(Part two is tomorrow, and will take the place of next Monday's column. It's spring break for the Curmudgeon)


April 4: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Birracibo’s local/regional “craft” beer percentage rides the bench.

March 14: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Two decades of Beer Corner barrels.

March 7: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Can I get a “do-over” on Naughty Girl?

February 22: The PC: Beef Steak and Porter always made good belly mortar, but did America’s “top” steakhouses get the memo?


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