2001 >> April >> Greetings from Heidelberg Germany  

Greetings from Heidelberg, Germany
by Robert Tucker

Reprinted from "Crown Jewels of the Wire", April 2001, page 11

"Bon Jour." 
"Bon Jour Sylvie". 
"Syndia, Comment-allez vous?"
"Je vais bien. C'est possible nous venons aujourd'Hui?"

And the conversation went on, with me not understanding more than just the intonation. But I could tell this inquiry was going well by the smiles on Syndia's face.

"Au revoir. Merci beaucoup".
"Well," I blurted out, "Do we go?"
"Hold on bucko. They have looked at the post and are a bit concerned about the safety of climbing on the burned beams, but they are expecting you this morning." 
"Fantastic!" And another fun filled trip into France was about to begin.

I must digress. This adventure started way back in December of 1999, when Perianne spotted what she claimed were Gingerbread boys as we traveled along the main road through Soufflenheim, trying to find a parking place. On a spur of the moment whim on a dreary Sunday, we had decided to go somewhere despite the bleak overcast skies (a fact one lives with here in Germany during the winter months). So, of course, the pottery town of Soufflenheim, France was the obvious choice. And as in all quaint old towns in Europe, there are but narrow winding streets and always someone in a hurry right on your bumper and never a place to pull over. So! When we finally got to a parking spot several blocks away, the initial impatient driver was gone, replaced by another speedster. Oh well, our license plate tells it all with "USA" boldly stamped for all to see. This covers for a multitude of driving blunders (or is it terror of what we will or will not do) and courtesies as well.

We walked back into the shopping area trying to see any evidence of the Gingerbread boys, but we could only see a pair of emerald green gems (CD 550-570s) standing out on a bracket attached to beautiful house. Peri was sure these were not the insulators she had seen, but we could not see any others. I cannot tell the CD 550 to 570s apart from the ground so we refer to them as "groove tops".

It was about three weeks later when my brother was visiting Heidelberg on leave from his tour in Bosnia that we again sped into Soufflenheim. At the only stoplight in town, Peri asked if we could go straight and try to find the Gingerbread boys. This was another dreary day under slight drizzle, which accounted for no one else on the road. And then Peri piped up, "There they are, I knew they were there". I was able to lurch the car onto the curb, which doubles as parking. We all stared up at the four emerald boys waving at us from their airy perch silhouetted against the gray sky high above on a three-foot iron mast jutting from a beam on an abandoned building. The building was really an extensive abandoned factory and this section had burned. The little shop in front of the insulators was only open on Saturdays. 

So, the next free Saturday we were back (this is three times now). Syndia began the conversation with the shop owners in French and we concluded in both German and French with just but a word or two of English. The shop owners were very friendly but could only tell us who owned the building and gave us a phone number.

We came back again the next week to meet with the now former building owners, they had just sold the building. We were having trouble finding a building number and Syndia went in an office we hoped was indeed the correct building. Syndia spoke with Sylvia who was most helpful and we set up a time to meet with the building owner who came into town on Fridays. 

There was the break-in at their business, which meant a delay of two more weeks and then the fruitful conversation described earlier between Syndia and Sylvia. OK!= This made the fifth time we had made it into France just to track down these little lads awaving. I had a rare day off which made the timing even better but the girls were all tied up. I had all my tools already packed and the fuel tank full. So I was off - solo. I know only about seven words of French. It is fortunate that Soufflenheim is just an hour away. When Sylvia took me to the office chief they had to switch to German. There was a bit of concern with the ladies about my safety, climbing around on the burned out portion of the building. I had to use all the charm my German would allow and how being safe was really important and they would not be responsible if I got hurt. I was sure glad I had made those word lists of building materials and safety for the troops coming over here. So with a bit of motherly trepidation the boss agreed to open the building complex up and let me try to get the insulators. 

The section of the building complex was at least two stories tall with lots of shelves, mostly full of dusty pottery stacked all over. There was a climbing spot next to a large pillar so up the shelves I went and was up nine feet in a flash. I then moved to the burned section and on my hands and knees moved along under some more shelves. These wooden planks were once of solid oak but the bottoms had been scorched during the fire and as I got closer to the wall the damage was greater. I spread my weight over three and sometimes four boards and kept watching the boards bend a tiny more as I got closer to the wall. I had called down a little earlier that all was well. I was glad she had not asked me now. The horizontal beams in the wall were really burned and I realized this was going to be a dirty chore to get through and around the beams in the open hole in the sheeting boards where they had fallen or completely burned off. Luckily, this hole in the wallboards was right below where the post was attached to the roof beam as well. It took some real wiggling to get on the outside of the wall, feeling the charcoal slowly crunch under my weight and hanging on to the harder parts and as I looked up I saw the mast above me. So now came the excitement of holding on, getting the wrench to the correct size and holding on all at the same time with one hand for each task (I would have preferred to approach each task with two hands for sure). The first nut started to twist then the entire bolt simply snapped. There was only a thread of metal left in the five eighths inch bolt. The other bolt was still solid but the nut on the other side of the beam would require over 6 inches of threads to unwind, and then what would I do with the mast? I had one hand on the vertical beam holding me on high and the other had the crescent wrench, so I needed another arm or a sky hook to loop a rope over to keep a 40 pound piece of steel from crunching to the ground. The emerald buddies were looking a bit worried too (or so I hoped they were) but I was looking out for their welfare. This situation required a different plan. There is nothing like making it up as you go. So I slowly undid a few threads of the upper nut then pulled the entire mast toward me until and it bumped into a rafter jutting out of the roofline. At this juncture I could see the elements had completely welded the bolts holding the individual cross arms to the mast. There would be no unbolting the cross arms and getting the insulators off at a more reasonable height, like on the ground. From a previous insulator adventure in the same town earlier in the summer, I knew that the French had devised a system of using a pike-like iron peg with a dime sized paddle on the end that was attached to either a cross arm or a bracket for two insulators. They then attached the insulator to the pike with a few tablespoons of gypsum. The insulators themselves are threaded and how the French came up with this holdfast scheme is a prime feat of French engineering. I moved to my left a bit, got a new handhold on another post and reached up to twist the first and closest emerald boy off his iron perch.

Darling Mother Nature had taken her toll on the gypsum too because the insulator at first just barely wiggled, then turned, and then it was free. I put this first beautiful gem in my bag and reached back up for a second then the third. My heart was pounding like a drum and the smile on my face was frozen. The fourth piece was out of reach at my present perch so I had to go up a bit higher on another horizontal beam, crunch some more charcoal hand holds and extend the full length of my 73 inch height and begin to wiggle the piece. Needless to say, the adrenaline level was still high in the veins but the muscles were now really squawking. Back and forth and around and around my last buddy turned, it was free but I needed just one more centimeter to lift it over the paddle and into my already fully extended fingers. I felt like Katie on toe during her ballet practice. But my shoes did not have a hard toe; they were just grinding into charcoal. I took a deep breath and held it and somehow the arms, the legs, and the vertebra stretched out just enough to let the fingers lift and grasp the last Gingerbread boy over the pike and into a clutching clamp like grasp. (Fear of falling at this point was not even a thought; the mind is so oblivious to danger at times). I looked down for the first time, wow. So I crawled back inside the building. Coming back across the burned out section was still dicey but I had the lads in the bag and going slowly out to the good boards was just fine. My heart was leaping. This adventure was coming to a wonderfully successful end. 

The gracious office chief who had let me into the complex was much relieved to see me down in one piece and smiled at how dirty I was. I know she was thinking those "Crazy Americans". I thanked her profusely in both German, French, and English. And so we departed, I to the community toilet to wash up a bit for the ride home and she to her home to have lunch. 

These emerald green Gingerbread boys are CD 640, ISOREX / 35/3/. Lovely pieces.

The wonderful Soufflenheim Gingerbread Boys Quartet
 with their new buddy Germania.

Earlier that summer, we had made our very first foray into the wonderful town of Soufflenheim. It seems that this was the third hottest day of the year and we were out stomping around to all the shops we could find and admiring the beautiful pottery items and the centuries old town. We were hot and wanting a drink, but we wanted to find this one last shop. We were following the arrows down this nameless narrow street and Syndia was leading us as my eyes went up along the old building for insulators. There were quite a few white porcelain pieces in several styles. We spied the shop tucked away between some old buildings that looked rather derelict. But alas, the shop was closed on this afternoon. On the way back to the car I again focused my attention to the eaves and backs of buildings looking for gems.

I stopped dead in my tracks, with Peri or Katie stumbling into me. Under the eaves were two purple groove tops on an iron bracket. Needless to say, I got a bunch of pictures (forgetting the heat and the parched throat) and began pondering the possibilities; they were only some 25 feet up the wall, there were only two bolts, there was a fence.... when en masse the girls drug me away to get something cool to drink and a bathroom break. 

We came back the next day and got directions to Beck's pottery, owners of the building. His new factory was just out of town. After an hour of driving out all three roads from this part of town we were still not at Beck's. We had trundled through some magnificent little villages with tons of beautiful insulators on roof tops and even caught two Gingerbread boys hiding under the eves above a butcher shop. We came back once again to our starting point and it dawned on us that the directions we had assumed we would leave the shop to the south when in fact we had left in the opposite direction. So a left turn at the end of the street sent us down the wrong road and off to some distant village, so we turned ourselves about and within a few minutes found the factory, not but 400 meters out of town. Oh well, we had some great pictures of different insulators that we do not see in Germany.

Syndia got to talk with the young desk clerk who was a bit confused. Finally Monsieur Beck came in to the show room and he seemed to know about collecting insulators and knew about the ones in question. I made the blunder of saying a few words in German and now there were three languages going. Mr. Beck spoke fluent French and German (as does nearly everyone in the Alsace region we are finding out) and pretty good English as well. He was enjoying the break in a Monday routine. He asked us to come back on Thursday and he would have someone assist us in getting the insulators down.

I was able to escape from work for half a day off on Thursday to go back for the glass gems. I had been resisting going into France for some unknown reason and this was our third trip in four days. I was hooked, at least on the Alsace region. Mr. Beck greeted us at the appointed time, roared off for a few minutes, and told us it was too dangerous for me to use a ladder up so high, but not to worry. He went into the warehouse and in a few minutes out putted a forklift with a large metal basket on the tines and two smiling gents who had to get a look at these crazy Americans. So we drove off into town following the forklift.

At the building, Pascal rode the basket up and took a hammer to the stucco wall, then unscrewed the bolts. Gilbert was keeping a careful eye on this from the controls in the forklift. They were just about as happy as we were when they finished the removal and handed the gems over to me. We thanked them with words and by taking several pictures. 

We went back to Mr. Beck's factory and thanked him in all three languages, the young clerk got a chance to see what we had been talking about, and we left them fully knowing Americans can be really crazy (but harmless). The insulators turned out to be CD 546s marked with "VA". They are a beautiful purple.

Syndia with a purple CD 546 and a olive Gingerbread boy (CD 640).

I have soldiers in the unit on the insulator search mission as well. One young captain brought back brown and whitish porcelain pieces and a clear Hemingray 45 from the sands of Egypt. The Hemi is dated 1942. These insulators could have been put up shortly after Rommel left Egypt. If only the insulators could talk like the lines attached to them could, what kind of tales would they tell? 

While stationed in Montana we had an exchange student, Maggie, whose family lives near us in Stuttgart. We visit our dear friends the Flaks often. They brought me several beautiful pieces from their home in Poland. Herr Flak and I go to the electrical yard near their home and salvage a box full of gems every so often. I have gotten a few large ceramic pieces but mostly CD 470s made in France and Spain and CD 600s made in Germany, and glass Johnny Balls in several colors. I keep hoping to find the other styles made by Vegla, which is why I keep going back to the yards.

Several large ceramic power insulators which have been 
added to the collection. Size comparison to a CD 677.5 "t-bar."

Perianne, Maggie and Katie after a successful hunt near Stuttgart.

A CD 640, ISOREX 35/3, France; CD 600, VEGLA No. 95, Germany; 
CD 546, V.A., France; CD 472, No Name, Poland; 
a dark green glass "Johnny Ball", Germany.

We had an opportunity to put some insulators on display at the library. So we put in some of the glass we had brought with us and most of our new treasures from Europe, a book or two, some simple descriptions of the hobby and insulators, what causes color, and a small test on who could pick out the minor differences in a pair of CD 470s. This sent the observer to the other display case and many had to come back to check out the small ridge on the skirt. The staff received so many compliments that they asked us to leave the display up for another month. Now all our color and styles are back on our one small display shelf made from driftwood we collected along the shores of Lake Michigan while stationed at Fort Sheridan. 

There are many jewels that have escaped however. I went on a tour of Verdun, France with the engineer staff in February. In Fort Duoumount, a fortress that cost the lives of many brave soldiers on both sides of the trenches during World War I, the old electric lines were still on the walls. On the sides of the darkened tunnels the rusting brackets hold three ceramic insulators with the wires still attached. The fort was hollowed out from a limestone hill and the stone they used for interior construction was coquina (a rock composed predominantly of broken shells and coral bits). The hundreds of thousands of shells that slammed into this hill put micro fractures through the living rock and the building blocks. A bit of time and a lot of seepage is making a beautiful new cavern with soda straw stalactites up to a foot long all along many of the mortar joints and creamy blob stalagmites forming on the floor. And the acidic waters are eating away at the metal brackets that hold the white porcelain insulators to their task.

Acidic water corrodes the the brackets 
of white porcelain insulators.

Every so often the insulators break free from the corroded bracket and are left to freely bob about, held by a mere scrap of highly oxidized tie wire to the insulated wire. And there was the Leatherman against my belt just itching to get out. I had to settle for pictures. 

Stalactites forming on the head and arms of a Gingerbread boy.

The one gem that really caught my eye was a Gingerbread boy. This piece was attached to a large metal bracket bolted in the rock about halfway up the wall. The bracket had turned upside down and the poor lad has stalactites forming from his arms and head. Not wanting to start an international incident (and not to mention the unwanted attention of the general) I did not wish to be seen as trying to make off with a trophy from one of France's holiest of war memorials but the poor lad was in distress. So I did try to right the bracket so he would have his head up to all the drips, but alas to no avail. So I tried to get a picture, but the angles were not right, so in a moment of sheer artistic frustration I did attempt to turn the lad around a bit, just to get a better shot of the limestone forming on the head and arms you understand. Truly it was just for a picture that I nearly sprained my wrists trying to turn the boy about. But limestone is stronger than gypsum. So now you understand the reason behind the topsy-turvy quality of the picture.

I saw my first wild "T-bar" on a wall in the city of Verdun and lots of lonely groove tops as well. The family is going there soon and Syndia will get to practice her charm and French too.

So the adventures go on. The girls are used to the wild stops and picture taking in some small town or railroad or almost anywhere. My boss and I run nearly every day and he has gotten good at grabbing me before I crawl up the side of some old barn or gasthaus in downtown Heidelberg, or while touring Venice (where green glazed double petticoats

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