Writer's Island - Spellbound - 3/15/08

In the early eighties I was a missile maintenance crew chief stationed at RAF Bentwaters in England. My crew was also responsible for maintaining missiles at a detachment at Ahlhorn AB, Germany. This was a German Air Base with a very small contingent of Americans stationed there. As a result, we were basically without adult supervision. I was the ranking member of our group, though only in my late twenties. I was supposed to be the stabilizing element, but often was not. My theory was work hard and play harder. Germany was a great field to play on. Great food, fantastic beer and wine, and a people always ready to party.

One of my subordinates was a teen-aged airman named Mike Sova. We were not only coworkers but also best friends. We are still good friends, nearly 30 years later. That is a wonder as a recount the following episode.

We were in a night club, or discotec, in the town of Ahlhorn, near Oldenberg, outside of the airbase. I can even remember the music that was playing when the event happened. It was Radar Love by Golden Earring. I think this song led to the incident, as I was unable to control my motor skills when it played over the club’s massive sound system. I still love the song, though it conjures up the following memory.

We were drinking a German liqueur called Escorial Grun. It has a very strong alcohol content and it is normally served set on fire, burning in a beautiful blue flame.

We had consumed several rounds and I had reached that embarrassing point of the evening when I thought I could dance. A waitress was delivering a tray of these to our table. She came up behind me as I was flopping around uncontrollably to the music in a kind of Joe Cocker movement. I bumped the tray and the flaming drinks splashed directly on my friend Mike. This was in the polyester years and his clothing immediately burst into flame. The club was fairly crowded and everyone kind of backed away to watch the show. They were totally spellbound. It is not every day they saw a flaming American (this was way before Will and Grace).

Not one of the onlookers moved to his aid. Suddenly, I was stone cold sober and dove over the table, throwing him to the floor and rolling him like a carpet with a mafia hit inside. I did not think. It was totally a reaction.

The flames immediately died, but not before they melted his polyester pants and removed all his excess body hair. Remarkably, he was not burned. I don't think you get credit as a hero if you, in fact, caused the situation. He sobered up as quickly as I did and we both went into a kind of shock, realizing what could have resulted. Both of us had lost our urge to party and left the club into the cold northern German night, crying and hugging each other. Everyone else went back to their partying as the show was over. I have never since lit any drinks on fire and I am relatively certain Mike has not either.