WACKERNHEIM, Germany – Driving on the Autobahn in Germany used to be a lot more fun. There were no speed limits anywhere, so you could often put the pedal to the metal and tear along at 120 miles per hour or more.
Now, after a mounting toll of horrific wrecks, the Germans have gotten a lot more American and speed-conscious, slapping speed limits of 70 miles per hour or so near most cities.
Still, the FOX team (producer Kim, cameraman Barnaby and myself) were making pretty good time on the next leg of our voyage across Europe. This day we were driving from Belgium to Germany, shadowing the route of President Bush's first and much touted European trip of his second term.
Bush's second stop would be the Mainz area where he plans to meet with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (search), an arch-critic of the Iraq War and, right up until the time of the meeting, a naysayer on at least some aspects of American foreign policy.
But, again, our reporting excluded all of those bigwig blowhards.
Our mission: Find out what average Europeans think of the U.S. Surely, the views of rank-and-file citizens couldn't be as nasty as what we've been hearing from the European "opinion-shapers."
So, after false starts and dead ends, we came across the quaint village of Wackernheim (search), 10 minutes from Mainz. It's kind of a commuting town now, but for centuries it has been known for its wine, fruit and vegetables, along with its super view of the Rhine River (search) valley.
It has one other distinction. It is home, like several other towns in Germany, to a U.S. military base, in this case an Army Intelligence unit. I know what you're thinking: a town that's benefiting big-time from GI bucks is going to be in favor of the U.S. You may be partly right.
But you'd also get some Europeans with decades of real contact with Americans, not some interpretation of Yankee sensibilities filtered through the often biased German media.
After our long drive it was way past dinnertime, so we quickly dove into the most popular (and kind of the only) eatery in town, the Wackernheim Hof. There, before our eyes, was nearly our whole story. Aside from some steaming dishes of fairly appetizing though groaningly heavy German fare, Germans and Americans were together, thoroughly enjoying themselves. OK, the soldiers (in their civvies, by the way) might have been sitting separately from the Germans, but they sure weren't getting any invectives hurled at them.
Being intelligence folks, some of the troops were a little tight-lipped, but one young woman happily shared her feelings with us. "I've had nothing but great experiences since I've been here," beamed Spc. Shannon Thurman. "The German people are actually very friendly."
These sentiments were shared by several of her colleagues and, I might add, many of the Germans we talked to.
That night happened to be the Wackernheim Hen Night.... A bunch of lovely (though slightly on in years) ladies gathering together to eat and gossip about the village. They were more than happy to take time out from dishing the dirt about their neighbors to tell us their own experiences with the Americans.
Renata Kloos was especially interested in making a point: "It was Christmas," she remembered, "and an American soldier gave me my first doll!"
Another recalled that the first chewing gum she ever got was from the pocket of a GI. During the years of occupation, another woman marveled at the big cars the American soldiers tooled around in, real ambassadors for the American way.
Stepping out for some air, we were steered to the other side of the village, where 25-year-old Charlotte Beck, who was making a pasta dinner with her new husband, had her own view of things.
Her mother is an American who found and married Charlotte's German father while studying over here. Charlotte has spent a lot of time in the States, and her English is perfect (she often translates at village events involving locals and Americans). She tried to explain to me — as nicely as possible — why some of her generation had "issues" with some of America's ways:
"The Germans here, they just want their freedom," she told me. "They don't want to get in another war again."
Back at the Wackernheim Hof, though, the member of parliament for the area, Michael Hartman, conceded there had been bumps in U.S.-German relations. But he also was very aware of the "war" America helped Germany, and all of Western Europe, win — the Cold War.
For some 50 post-war years the tanks and the nuclear armaments of a Soviet Union bent on overrunning the "free" part of Europe were poised and ready to roll west ... just a few hours from Wackernheim.
"There's a tradition ... and we won't forget what America did for us," Hartman told me. "Whatever the problems are nowadays, the Germans won't forget the help the Americans gave to us."
I thought of that as we left Wackernheim and headed out on our long drive across Germany ... then Austria ... to what used to be called Eastern Europe. Now some call it New Europe. The country Slovakia didn't even exist 20 years ago. It would be the last stop on President Bush's tour. And ours, too.