Completed the Gladiator Assault Challenge!

7 miles. 35 obstacles. A number of cuts, scrapes and bruises. One pair of really sore feet. One banged-up knee. I’m healing quickly, though.
Lots of good camaraderie on the trail. Tough, but doable, and fun obstacles. I think I’ll do another some day.

One Muddy Hessian

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The Hessian Goes Home, Part 3: Lessons in Anglicization

Parts 1 and 2 are available here:

Since covering those two landmarks, it was time to go to the main, the town itself. The official family records state the John Henry Gall was born in the city of Buchenburg, Vohl, district of Kassel, on 24 March 1834.

A closer look at the records, though, shows something that I should have anticipated but did not. His entire name was Anglicized. He was actually born “Johann Heinrich Galle”. So they changed the spelling of the last name, and changed the first and middle names completely. “They” being (I’m guessing) the port authority personnel at New Orleans, where Johann made landfall in the United States. In any case, it stuck, to the point that Johann Heinrich appeared before a circuit court in Missouri in 1866 to renounce all allegiance to King Ludwig of Germany and swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and thus became a US citizen.

The trip to Buchenburg was up steep hills on winding roads. The city sits at the confluence of several forests and sparsely populated farmland, so it really feels out in the wilderness.

I guess the town's mascot is a homeless tramp?


The downside is that almost all the houses appear to be pretty recent construction. No old half-timbered farmhouses. In fact, I saw very few buildings that could have been around during Johann’s time at all.

At the edge of town we saw this house.

Really, it’s a pretty non-descript, modern German home. But take a closer look at that placard near the mailbox.

The family tree states that what is now “Gall” in the United States was “Galle” in Germany, and sometimes “Gallen”. A long-lost cousin, perhaps?

I knocked, but sadly, there was no answer. I took down the address, though, so I may try and reach out by letter and see if anyone responds…

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The Hessian Goes Home, Part 2: The Church

First off, Part 1 is available here:

During our travels to see where the family came from, we saw the small town nearby Buchenberg (marked with a “B”) where John Henry was from. This nearby town was called Kirchlotheim (marked with a “C”).

The family records we were sent by our diligent cousins said that Buchenberg did not have its own church, so they traveled to Kirchlotheim for marriages, baptisms, funerals, etc.

The church itself was built AFTER John Henry came to the U.S., so clearly he never stepped foot there. But it’s possible (likely) that his siblings and nephews and nieces did. This church was modest, and there were two memorials in the back yard to those locals who gave their lives in the World Wars. No Galls are listed, but there is a Wolf listed. One of John Henry’s grandmothers was a Wolf according to the family tree, so another possible family connection. The church was locked, so we were not able to venture inside sadly.

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The Hessian Goes Home, Part 1: The Castle

For my birthday, we planned a trip back to the homeland. As I mentioned in this blog’s very first post, the first Gall in America came from near the city of Kassel in the state of Hesse, Germany.

I was skeptical of my ability to find out more about the family tree back in the Fatherland. Kassel was a major industrial city during World War II, building Tiger tanks, Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulfe aircraft, locomotives, engines, and other apparatus of war.

The allied response was predictable.

The prospects of family records surviving that were small, to say the least.

However, other, more diligent researchers found out that the Gall family was actually from a small, outlying town to the southwest of Kassel.

You’ll note the large lake, and large forest to the southwest Kassel, which is marked with an “A” in the map above.

Our accommodations were in a castle overlooking the lake, marked with an “A” in the map below. And the “B” marker to the west of that? That’s Buchenberg, where John Henry came from.

The castle we stayed in was AMAZING. Called Schloss Waldeck, it was quite modern, comfortable, and had an excellent restaurant and bar.

Of course, it looked a little more wintery to us, since it was February.

The approach wrapped around the outside, exposing you to the battlements.

And while it was truly modern inside, walking in reception, there’s no mistaking you’re in a castle:

We had a beautiful room with a great view.

So what does this castle have to do with the family tree?

It was the closest castle to the town the family came from. I’d like to think John Henry had been to the castle; he almost certainly would have known of its existence and location. Heck, maybe he even met the Grand Duke!

Next week: the actual town John Henry came from, and the Gall family tree gets a little larger.

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From the Archives: The Forgotten Castle

That title’s not hyperbole. I literally have forgotten which castle this is. I had a Saturday with no plans before my wife and daughter got here to Germany, so I pulled out the map, and saw an icon for a “castle ruin” just east of Kaiserslautern. Perfect! So much of my preferred genre of fiction takes place in doom-haunted castle ruins, I thought I’d go check one out in real life!

It was up a steep hill (as all castles tend to be):

Through the trees, until I came upon the backside of the castle. Also like other castles in the Rhein valley, the architects took advantage of the boulders already in place.

The little village at the foot of the hill had some interesting features, too. A pretty church:

With a pretty set of doors:

One thing that I found interesting was the chisel marks on the stone:

There was also another church. Much smaller; in fact so small, it would best be called a chapel.

But wait, what’s that strange detail on the keystone? Is that some sort of pagan symbol? The Eye of Horus, perhaps?

I guess The Da Vinci Code got it right. Either that, or the Freemasons have infiltrated the Catholic church.

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From the archives: Oktoberfest

It’s the happiest time of the year for Bavarians!

No, not Christmas; Oktoberfest! Beer, sausages, giant pretzels, and women in dirndls! What more could one ask for?

My parents made the trip out, and experienced it with me; it was fantastic having them around.

We arrived early to see the parade going in. When they deliver the beer to Oktoberfest, they don’t just have some scruffy guy wheeling it in on a dolly. No, they do that with class.

Appropriately, the beer wagons are accompanied by musicians.

Eventually, we wandered inside. The Oktoberfest grounds are essentially a large park on which they erect large “tents”. I use that term in quotes because these tents would be considered the Taj Mahals of the tent world. Really, they’re more like full-blown buildings.

Alas, these tents are dominated by tables with reserved seating, and we were not able to find open seats. When the weather is fair, this isn’t a problem, because there’s plenty of uncovered outdoor seating. But when the weather’s like this:

Well, no one wants to sit outside and drink their lager in that.

We were getting wet, and it was cold, and there were no seats we could find. We wandered, hoping to find something. In a back alley, we found no seating, but we did stumble across some of those beer delivery horses.

I had actually given up hope. We were sick of getting rained on, and decided just to head into the city and find a table at a restaurant. We were just going to pop in, use the latrine, then head into the heart of Munich. But the little tent we found turned out to be a full-blown restaurant. With seating available.

They had schweineshaxen, which is roasted pork knuckle. It tastes much better than it sounds.

And, I earned another check on my man card: having a liter of beer at Oktoberfest with my old man:

Poppa Hessian does not care for your pictures when beer and pork are available

Mom was less impressed by the liters of beer, but the apple strudel won her over quite handily.

I acquired (legally, by purchasing) a Lowenbrau liter beer glass; which is an excellent souvenir, especially in light of the pictures above.

Ein prosit!

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Archives: Burg Satzvey

From the archives: when my parents visited in September, we took in a Renaissance Festival at Burg Satzvey, a castle about two hours north of us on the outskirts of Cologne, between the towns of Mechernich and Euskirchen.

The castle, while small, is beautifully preserved and picturesque.


The castle remains the seat of Count Beissel von Gymnich who, as far as I could tell, was not in attendance.

The event that attracted us to the castle was a Renaissance Festival, and the accompanying knight play. The festival was neat, and added lots of flavor to a tour of the castle grounds.


Even the kids got into the act:


The main event, though, was the “Ritterspiele”, which translates literally as “Knight’s Play”. It was a play that involved lots of swordfights and jousting; basically, my dream movie acted in live action. The problem was that it was all in German, and my German is sub-par, at best. I can tell you this. There was jousting and sword fights. Some peasants got murdered and their house burned down. A princess was saved from burning at the stake. A man was knighted by a bishop, but he turned out to be a villain. And there were freedom fighters who helped the heroes, who as near as I could tell were star-crossed lovers of a sort. Characters fought and died, and gave impassioned speeches and defected from one side to another.

I must say, you don’t need to know the language to understand the knights fighting and betraying each other. It could’ve used more explosions, but that’s true of all entertainment in my mind.

It was a dim, cloudy, cold, overcast day:

And because of that dimness, and the distance we were from the action (we were in the cheap seats), please excuse the blurriness and the occasional (very un-medieval) speaker that gets in the way of the shot.

The star-crossed lovers, with the leader of the rebels, meeting on top of a house for some reason.


The real stars of this show, at least to my dad and I, were the knights. These men knew how to handle their animals, and the horses were clearly well trained. The armor and livery were all impressive as well.


Of course, after all that excitement, I had to cool down with a little of King Ludwig’s brown.


Up next: Heidelberg!

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How the Germans use Christmas to terrify children

The Germans have a (not entirely undeserved) reputation for being a harsh people.

The example for the holiday season? Krampus.

Krampus is basically St. Nick’s enforcer. Or, to put it other terms, St. Nick’s promise of toys and treats for good behavior is the carrot, and Krampus’ penchant for kidnapping, enslaving, and ultimately murdering children is the stick.

It’s more prominent in the Alpine regions of southern Germany and Austria, but is known across the country. And the Germans have pretty Christmas cards, just like we do in the states, but they also have Krampus cards.

He’s got some mean wheels, though.

So here’s to Krampus! The Grinch that stole Christmas has nothing on Krampus. I mean, he just stole presents and the roast beast, but didn’t go for any enslavement or murder.

Krampus day is December 5; mark your calendars for next year!

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Reunited! Errata forthcoming…

I got Cotterpin and Li over to Germany! It happened just last week!*

The Hessian, Li and Cotterpin, reunited at Burg Nanstein.

Sorry I’ve been incommunicado. When Cotterpin and Li got here, we sent some time getting them settled in, and running around doing those “setting up a new apartment” errands, and then we went right into traveling on the weekends.

I’ve pictures and stories saved up, and will start rolling them out more regularly now. I promise.

Want a preview of what I’ll be covering? A sneak peak (and better pictures) are available at:

First hint: Switzerland.

Belgium. Also, a list of foreign countries through which I've carried my growing child on my shoulders.

*I’m actually writing this post on December 24. “But wait, the blog post itself says this post was uploaded on November 15; what gives?” That, my dear friends, is through the magic of the internet. Yes, Cotterpin and Li have been here about six weeks. What can I say? Time goes by faster (in a good way) when they’re around.

That's Cotterpin. Fresh Alpine air and Swiss chocolate made her come down with a serious case of the cute.

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The Headless Horseman, aka The Halloween Hessian, aka Hessian of the Month for October

Halloween remains my favorite holiday.

When I was a child, it was all so much fun. Candy. The chance to dress up and be someone else for a night. Days warmed by the autumn sun, but with portents of coming change. Crisp, cool autumn nights. Changing leaves.

As I grew, it was still so much fun, but of more of an adult nature. Namely, massive beer consumption and women, who have really done an excellent job of making “sexy” versions of every Halloween costume imaginable.

Well done, ladies. Now report to my cabin for your scurvy checks.

But no matter the age, Halloween has always been tinged with an air of the sinister. The supernatural. The unknown. Which brings us to the Hessian of the month for October: The Headless Horseman.

While most don’t realize he’s Hessian, he’s doubtless the most prominent Hessian in the American psyche. The main antagonist in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a 1820 story by Washington Irving, his story is a natural fit for the Halloween season. He even comes with a pumpkin!

From the story:

“The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.
“Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the name of The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.”

Surprisingly, my father introduced me to the legend. I say “surprisingly” because he has always been a history-biography-western guy. There wasn’t much overlap in the books he and I liked, seeing I was always seeking out comics and books featuring monsters, superheroes, wizards and dragon-slaying knights. But the Horseman bridged the gap between our tastes.

The Headless Horseman is a unique American story. It’s old enough to have been around “forever” (at least in American terms) but specific enough that the details remain pretty fixed. Despite the common elements, there’s plenty of variations in how he’s depicted by artists.

He can be a cold, sinister aloof presence,

Or a fiery, blustery character.

He can be sleek, fast and nimble,

Or large and prominent, standing tall astride his destrier.

The Horseman can even appear, dare I say it, contemplative.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him.

Or he can be accoutered as the grandest of knights, majestic in his terrible ferocity.

He’s as essential to the Halloween pantheon as Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Dracula has his fear of crosses, Frankenstein’s monster has his neck bolts. The Horseman has his great steed, sword or axe, pumpkin, and never-ending search for his lost head. If the art is anything to go by, he often conducts his searches by the light of the full moon.

And, he makes a hell of a dog costume.

The appeal of the horseman, as with all of Halloween, is simply this: the world is a much more interesting place with some mystery in it. Irving’s story has endured precisely because it does not spell out the answers. It’s ambiguous as to the existence of the Horseman, and if the Horseman got Ichabod Crane, or Brom Bones drove him off. As it should be.  Halloween revels in what’s just out of reach and just out of sight; the things we don’t quite understand just beyond our perception. Those sinister hidden things remind us that we’re part of a larger world, and sometimes the world doesn’t conform to our whims and wishes; indeed, many times, the world moves on, not caring one whit for our wishes or desires on the matter. Just like the Horseman, who’s motivations and methods are a puzzle, but one cannot impugn his persistence.

At least, I cannot. Because no matter what else has occurred in my life, the Horseman shows up every fall. When the leaves start to change and the nights get crisp, he appears from the dark corners of my mind, scouring the countryside for his lost head (or possibly others’ heads?) reminding me that I don’t have it all figured out, that this, too shall pass, and the seasons will keep turning. But mostly he reminds me that there’s still some magic in the world. It’s just out of reach and just out of sight, but sometimes, like the Horseman, it slips into sight, allowing itself to be perceived for me to draw whatever truths I can from it.

So here’s to the Headless Horseman. May he never find his head, never cease his midnight rides, and keep the mystery alive. Our world certainly needs its heroes. But a hero needs to be humble, and nothing is quite so humbling as a ghost that cannot be vanquished and cannot be deterred from his errand.

Happy Halloween!

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