A crisp west wind blew away the last days of September 1894 and hailed in the 16-day annual folk festival known as Oktoberfest. The first Oktoberfest was held on October 12, 1810, when all the citizens of Munich were invited to attend the wedding party of King Ludwig I as he married Princess Therese Charlotte Luise of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The event was such a success it stuck, and Oktoberfest became a favorite annual celebration.
Wearing lederhosen and his favorite emerald-green alpine wool hat, sixteen-year-old Albert strolled into the fairgrounds. He’d been saving his appetite for the afternoon feast, and his stomach was growling in anticipation. Festive, tent-like canopies dotted the grounds, and Albert inhaled the enticing scents of dumplings baking in huge pans, chickens roasting on spits, and sausages sizzling in their juices. Albert’s eyes widened at the abundance of Bavarian delicacies, and his stomach rumbled again.
Twilight was slowly descending across the sea of colorful tents, which were lit with the still novel electric light bulbs. A week before, as an assistant in the family-owned electrical company Elektrotechnische Fabrik J. Einstein & Cie., Albert had mounted the light bulbs in the Schottenhamel marquee.
The excited teenager made his way past the Hippodrome, which had magically been transformed from a horse-racing track into a dance hall. The sweet smell of the fresh, bracing autumn air was filled with the screaming, hooting and shouting of the revelers, underscored by the joyous sounds of a sprightly polka band. Outside the large, ornate building, families in their festive best chatted animatedly with neighbors waiting in line with them.
The crunch of fallen red and gold leaves under his feet, Albert whistled under his breath as he made his way to the far west end of the fairground. A new exhibit hosted by Munich Brau featured a competition for the best crossbowman. Near the Munich Brau beer wagon, Albert found Johann setting up the targets. “Hey, Johann, do you need any help?” Albert shouted above the chatter and music.
Johann, in a sweaty white peasant shirt and lederhosen, turned around. “Albert! You made it!” He gave his friend a brotherly hug.
“Wouldn’t miss Oktoberfest,” Albert replied with mock indignation.
“Thanks for stopping by our tent. My father has invested a lot of money in the crossbow contest, so I’m just finishing up here. You go on inside. I’ll catch up with you soon.”
Albert waved goodbye and headed into the Munich Brau pavilion. A wooden dance floor covered the center of the pagoda-style tent that measured fifty feet square. Rows and rows of tables and benches lined the sides. On planks at the far south side of the party room, plate after plate of fresh bratwurst and mugs of frosty beer beckoned.
I’m starved, Albert said to himself and strode purposefully toward the food table. Suddenly, someone thrust their foot into the crowded aisle and sent Albert sprawling into the dirty straw that covered the floor. Albert could hear the derisive laughter, as he hoisted himself to his feet. Brushing the straw from his clothing, he found himself face-to-face with Werner von Wiesel.
“Walk much, clumsy?” the bully sneered, “and look at that stupid hat!” Werner backhanded Albert’s goat-hair cap from his head.
“That’s enough, Werner,” shouted a stout man dressed in a white apron and balancing a large platter brimming with hot sausage. It was Johann’s father, Frederick Thomas, “This is not sportsmanlike conduct. I will pull you from the crossbow competition if you continue to behave like this.”
Albert glared at the bully and brushed sawdust from the cap. Werner, all innocence, looked hurt as he responded to the man. “Me? I didn’t do anything.” Werner glanced at a nearby table for support from his father, a retired Prussian colonel who had served in the German Army under Bismarck. But between bites of bratwurst and swallows of cold beer, the senior Von Wiesel was chatting with friends and missed his son’s performance. Werner shrugged and strode off toward the food table as if Albert were beneath his notice.
Shaking his head at Werner’s audacity, Herr Thomas turned to Albert and offered him a plate of sausages. “I’m sorry for that, Albert. You did an excellent job installing the electric lights. Now enjoy what we do best."
Albert's mouth watered as he inhaled the savory, steaming sausages. He accepted the plate gratefully and walked to a table near the six-piece band. He snagged a frosty mug of beer from the beer wagon along the way. The musicians were tuning their instruments as a group of dancers waited for the music to start. He set the platter onto the table and proceeded to pile a couple sausages onto one of the clean plates arranged along the table’s edge. At a nearby table, a pretty young dark-haired girl smiled at Albert. Albert blushed a little and smiled back.
The encounter with Werner had not diminished Albert’s appetite, and he turned his attention to the steaming sausages in front of him. Before long, his plate was clean and the mug empty. Sated, Albert relaxed back into his chair and closed his eyes. Should I stay or go? There are many tents in which to enjoy the festivities. If I open my eyes, will Werner be gone? Then, he grimaced. If I leave, will he follow me? The accordion wheezed into life, and the drum began beating the tempo for a lively polka. Albert felt the music, opened his eyes, and joined in singing with the enthusiastic crowd. He clapped his hands and watched the band.
Johann’s mother, Christine, her ginger hair tucked under a white cap, tapped Albert’s shoulder and pointed to the young fräulein who had smiled at Albert earlier. “Albert, please dance with Mileva. She is the daughter of a lovely family we met. They’re visiting from Austro-Hungary.”
Albert gazed shyly at the delicate beauty at the next table. She smiled demurely and then looked down. Albert plucked up a bit of courage from somewhere and hesitantly asked, “Um, hi. Would you like to, uh, dance?”
Mileva nodded, and the two stood so Albert could lead the dainty Fräulein to the dance floor. What a beautiful girl, he thought as he glanced sideways to take a surreptitious look. Taking their positions on the dance floor, Albert held Mileva like a porcelain doll. Despite his shyness, he was an accomplished dancer, handily navigating through the many couples on the floor. Mileva’s bright-blue eyes twinkled with delight as Albert masterfully guided her to the strains of Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz.”
After a few dances, Albert returned his partner to her seat. As he turned to go back to his table, Mileva put her hand on his arm. “Please join me,” she said, looking up into his eyes. Albert just makes the drinking age of sixteen in Germany. Albert gulped and nodded, settling into a chair next to the young girl. He motioned to a passing hostess carrying a tray with mugs of beer. “Mileva, would you like something to drink?”
“That would be lovely.” Mileva smiled.
As the hostess set two mugs on the table, she knocked a cardboard coaster to the ground. As Albert bent to pick it up, an arrow streaked past her, flying through the crown of Albert’s hat, and knocking it off his head. Albert flinched, jarring the table and knocking over one of the mugs of beer. The frothy brew spilled over the edge of the table right into his overturned hat.
Mileva was enraged. “Who would do something like this?”
Albert put on a brave smile as he leaned over, picked up his hat and the arrow that had embedded itself in the straw-covered dirt floor. He shook the last wisps of foam out of his hat. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Just an accident.” Placing his hat on the table, he looked directly into Mileva’s beautiful eyes and smiled. “Or maybe Cupid has shot his arrow.”
Mileva blushed and looked down at the table.
“But, seriously,” Albert continued, breaking the mood, “please don’t say anything to anyone about this.”
“I won’t, if you don’t want me to,” Mileva agreed.
Albert scanned the crowd for Werner, who was nowhere to be seen. With Mileva watching quietly, Albert studied the arrow. It was small, as if from a child’s bow. Turning it in his fingers, he noticed a “WvW” burnished on the wood. Albert wondered how anyone could be so stupid as to pull such a prank with their initials carved into the arrow. But then, Werner had never been the brightest bulb on the string, Albert thought.
Scanning the room again, Albert spotted Herr Thomas on the far side of the tent, pouring a seemingly endless stream of frothy beer into mugs. Albert considered whether he should take the arrow to him. If he did, Werner would be expelled from the crossbow competition, and possibly suspended from school. This is neither the time nor the place, Albert sighed, looking at the crowds around Herr Thomas. But it won’t do to stay here, either.
Beer-soaked hat in his left hand, Albert held out his right hand and bowed. “I’m sorry, Mileva, but I think I need to... uh, tend to something at my home.”
Unable to hide her disappointment, Mileva clasped his hand. “I’m sorry you have to leave so soon.”
“Me, too,” Albert said, his natural shyness coming to the fore. “I... um... really enjoyed dancing with you.”
Mileva brightened a little. “Me too. Maybe I’ll see you again while I’m here... or sometime?” she said, tilting her head quizzically.
“I... I’d really like that,” Albert turned hastily, slipped the arrow under his jacket, and made his way through the crowd and out of the tent.
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