Saturday, August 12, 2017

30 years ago today on THE BEER BEAT: Elephant, Mouse, wonderful friends and a Titanic Struggle.

As they were: Graham, Roger, Barrie, Kim and Kim.

Previously: 30 years ago today on THE BEER BEAT: Visiting the Carlsberg brewery just prior to the Altercation in Copenhagen.


Day 118 ... Wednesday, August 12 (Part Two)
Copenhagen. Altercation in Copenhagen. Classic evening

An epic one, indeed.

This story has been told, blogged and altogether beaten to death on a dozen occasions at various blog portals, though never before with photographic evidence.

As part and parcel of my ongoing commitment to taste and decency, I'll be sparing readers the more graphic photos, which include bodies slumped in unsuspecting doorways, phallic Lenin busts and other testaments to the oddly redemptive power of Elephant Beer.

The tale begins with where I wasn't.

It is worth noting for posterity’s sake 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.

Redubbed Sportstime Pizza, events were set into motion that changed numerous lives (some even for the better) and led to what today is widely known as the New Albanian Brewing Company, with which I was affiliated for 25 years (until 2015).

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, and the Fickle Finger of Fate makes the final call.

The reason for my absence in 1987 was the four-month European sojourn which recently has been the topic of 50-odd "30 years ago today" retrospective blog entries. It was my second such trip, and today, in the year 2017, it is another incremental mile marker, helpfully denoting the passage of three decades into the 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 short 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 at the places seen, experiences savored, and people encountered while on the road in 1987.

Three months in Europe in 1985 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 more than half my life, an existence immeasurably enriched by their camaraderie in myriad ways too profuse to chronicle.

But my motive at present in name-checking the three Danes, and by extension, recalling the manner by which we became acquainted during the summer of 1987, is the 30th anniversary of a drinking bout subsequently dubbed “The Battle of the Titans,” held at the venerable Copenhagen pub called the Elephant & Mouse (sadly, it since has gone out of business).

The date of this grand spectacle was August 12, 1987, and it is a day that will live in forgetfulness.


Let's begin with a summary.

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 of '87.

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 qualified as 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.

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 challenging 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, Barrie 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 it we did.

For a few brief days, 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 squeamish or senselessly law-abiding to trade on the streets.

Our introductory lesson in entrepreneurial initiative thus completed, we moved on to Leningrad (before and again St. Petersburg) by overnight sleepless express train just in time for an impromptu day-early Fourth of July celebration.

Kim, Barrie and I gathered on the grassy, mosquito-infested bank of an urban canal. With beer in short supply, the soiree was 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. Barrie and I scratched our heads and made mental notes.

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

Once the canalside vodka bottle was emptied, we stumbled back to the hotel, which was a tall concrete monstrosity located in a suburb of Leningrad. One of the tour participants had packed a full-sized American flag, which he proceeded to unfurl on the building’s roof after bribing an elevator attendant to take him there, against the dictates of common sense and all prevailing regulations.

Miraculously, even after it flew in full view all night, we were able to reclaim the flag without any difficulty, and there were no disciplinary repercussions. In fact, Old Glory subsequently was traded to a Soviet railway employee in return for a huge tub of first-rate Black Sea caviar.

Brief stays in the oppressed Baltic lands of Latvia and Lithuania followed, and then the group proceeded to Warsaw in Poland. There are too many anecdotal tales to coherently relate, though here are highlights:

Building the “Leaning Tower of Pivo” from empty export Carlsberg cans in a Riga hard currency bar.

The well-endowed Danish lass Mette’s provocative push-ups at a meet-and-greet with Lithuanian students.

An elderly fellow tourist mistaking the liquid in our vodka bottle for mineral water on a scorching hot day at the Polish-Soviet border as we waited for the train’s wheel carriages to be changed.

Surreal and somber Polish side trips to Krakow and Auschwitz.

Wild going-away parties in Warsaw, where Barrie and I drank Bulgarian wine with Bozena, our helpful Polish tour guide, alongside a few of the tour group’s stragglers.

A cab ride to Warsaw’s cavernous train station and desperate, futile foraging for food and drink prior to the long overnight ride to Prague and our ultimate redemption, otherwise known as Pilsner Urquell on draft.

Kim Wiesener, an amazing, hyper-kinetic tour leader, was right in the thick of most of these occurrences, and a sort of wartime kinship was born. At the conclusion of the trip we exchanged addresses with him, promising to keep in touch. Barrie and Kim agreed to meet later that summer, when Barrie would return to Copenhagen for his flight back to the United States.

You can bet your last black market ruble that even then, Kim’s cerebral wheels were spinning: What could be done to bring Barrie and Kim Andersen together during a Copenhagen convergence?

In the meantime, Barrie and I embarked upon the beer-based itinerary we had plotted far in advance for the remainder of our time in Europe, first traveling to Prague for cheap beds, jaw-dropping sights and the world-renowned Automat Koruna. From our first draft Pilsner Urquell to a legendary brewery trek, it was an amazing time.

Next came Munich, where we met Don “Beak” Barry and Bob Gunn for three epochal days of Bavarian beer hall carousing, before pressing on with Bob, down the Rhine and to Paris, Versailles, Chartres cathedral, and the D-Day beaches.

After Bob’s departure, Barrie and I crossed the sea to Ireland aboard the “Guinness ferry,” meeting up with Tommy, a newspaperman and good friend of Don’s, and later watching U2 perform at the Cork soccer stadium, before experiencing the operatic wonders of Brian and his “High-B” Hibernian Pub, also in Cork, all the while marveling at the history, music and classic pleasures of the Irish countryside.

Originally I didn’t think there would be enough time for me to accompany Barrie to Denmark and then double back to Brussels for my own return flight, but at a pub somewhere in Ireland, after my tenth pint of Guinness, I changed my mind. I had a rail pass, after all, and what better was there to do with it?

We began concocting a plan to surprise Kim Wiesener with my delightfully unexpected presence, refining the insidious plot over smoked salmon and Bailey’s Irish Cream while aboard the ship to Le Havre. Once in Paris, we hopped an overnight train to Hamburg, then Copenhagen, and contrary to so many failed plans made over the years, this one came perfectly to fruition.

Soon after debarking in Copenhagen we were reunited, burrowed safely in Kim’s tiny apartment with chilled Tuborgs in hand and Monty Python songs in our hearts.

Following opening toasts, our devious and conniving host divulged his own surprise: An evening with Big Kim already had been arranged, and so finally, Ottersbach would meet Andersen.

Providentially, so would I.

The world was advised to forget Ali’s and Frazier’s “Thrilla in Manila.” Instead, onlookers were to gird for the "Altercation in Copenhagen," or “Battle of the Titans,” to be held in the quaint beer venue called the Elephant & Mouse (Mouse and Elephant), where we were informed there would be copious quantities of draft Elephant beer, Carlsberg’s fine, sturdy and strong lager.

It was to be our first visit to the M & E, a small and dignified pub near the main square, where the only sign of identification above the front door was a small sculpted plaque depicting – what else? – a mouse and an elephant. In the wake of the pub’s sad closing in the late 2000s, let’s hope the plaque now resides in a museum of cultural history somewhere in Copenhagen.

On the second floor of the pub, up a narrow flight of ancient steps, a handmade elephant head adorned the wall behind the wall. Draft Elephant Beer poured from the snout, powered by a clever tusk acting as the tap handle.

Big Kim arrived along with Graham, a British friend who chose to follow the lead of Kim Wiesener and me, nursing just a couple of half-liter glasses during the session. At $7 a pop, these were somewhat financially burdensome at the time, and anyway, we wanted to watch the spectacle unfold with faculties intact.

As predicted, Big Kim and Barrie proved to be perfectly matched humans, perhaps separated at birth, both with a fondness for alcohol of any sort, hot and spicy food in large quantities, impossibly tall tales and jokes, and endless, infectious tsunamis of irresistible laughter.

Big Kim and Barrie approached the high-gravity Elephant Beer at full throttle, and much merriment ensued. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth one, Barrie stumbled; accounts vary, but we can gently infer that some of the Elephant Beer didn’t stay entirely down.

Advantage, Andersen.

After several hours of Elephant consumption, and with monetary reserves reaching dangerously low levels, we decided to continue the match at a nearby establishment where Mette (of Lithuanian busty push-up fame) worked as a bartender.

As we stood on the street corner contemplating taxi strategies, Big Kim suddenly broke free of the group and staggered wildly into the middle of the street in a doomed effort to hail a taxi home. We quickly subdued him, dodging passing bicycles and cars, and loading him into our own hack to proceed to the next planned stop.

With this unforced error of Big Kim’s, Ottersbach had pulled even.

Now the bout devolved into a brutal battle of attrition, with the clock ticking and everyone involved thoroughly drunk and fatigued. Both Barrie and Big Kim made it through big export bottles of Pilsner Urquell at the second bar, after which we returned to Little Kim’s apartment for obligatory nightcaps, the outcome still very much in doubt.

Barrie and Big Kim both opened their green label bottles of Carlsberg. Barrie finished his, but Big Kim stole away, ostensibly to use the toilet, and was found a short time later sleeping on the host’s bed.

Seemingly, it was a last-gasp victory for Ottersbach, but as all those involved were physically unable to tally points in their besotted condition, the Battle of the Titans was fittingly declared a draw and passed into legend.

A somewhat desultory encore continued into the wee hours.

30 years have passed since that epic summer of 1987 and our first meeting with Kim Wiesener, Allan and Big Kim, who have been everywhere, but now reside in Copenhagen, Moscow and Arnhem (Netherlands), respectively.

Certainly all of us have changed, but the friendships carries on, and I cherish them all. We five have met many times, in many places, and they’ve all been special – just like the next time.

Next: Summer's end as Barrie departs Copenhagen and Roger hops a train for Belgium.

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