In the innocent newspapering days of yore, it was refreshing when an amusing feel-good story like the saga of Erwin Kreuz — a West German brewery worker who mistook Bangor for San Francisco some 32 years ago — came along to entertain the masses.
Unlike the toxic fallout from the week’s headline-grabbing domestic dispute involving professional golfer Tiger Woods and his golf-club wielding spouse, the public’s reaction to the adventures of Kreuz represented “the decent side of America that should be displayed more often,”’ in the words of a Bangor Daily News reader in a November 1977 letter to the editor.
In sharp contrast to widespread disapproval of the brazen publicity stunt engineered by the social climbers who crashed a recent White House power bash, the public quickly became enamored of the wayward German traveler, plying him with gifts and honorary titles and making him an international celebrity.
Aroostook County independent filmmaker Brenda Jepson recently reminded me of the Kreuz saga when she provided me with newspaper clippings on the incident and we had a good old time laughing about it.
The odyssey began for the 49-year- old German when his October 1977 charter flight from West Germany to San Francisco landed at Bangor International Airport to refuel and allow passengers on the international flight to clear customs. The plane’s crew was due to change in Bangor, and a stewardess who was getting off the plane stopped by Kreuz’s seat to wish him well in San Francisco.
Only half-awake and apparently not having heard an earlier announcement that passengers would disembark in Bangor during a brief stopover on their way to California, Kreuz went through the customs baggage checkpoint, walked out of the terminal and hailed a cab, asking to be taken to a hotel.
Believing he was in San Francisco, he wandered around Greater Bangor for several days admiring the architecture and the ambience. If the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge linking Bangor with Brewer didn’t exactly fit the image of the Golden Gate Bridge depicted in those slick travel brochures that had enticed him to America, well, perhaps he was in a suburb of the storied city by the bay.
Only when, in his limited English, he asked a taxi driver to drive him to downtown San Francisco and the driver conveyed to Kreuz that it would mean a costly 3,000-mile one-way fare did the awful truth begin to sink in. He may not have been in Deutschland any more, Toto, but he wasn’t in San Francisco, either. Where he seemed to be, in fact, was pretty much up the creek without an oar in das Boot.
Fortunately, he subsequently met someone who understood a bit of his German and contacted German-speaking Kenneth and Gertrude Romine of Old Town for assistance in extricating him from his predicament.
Many who read his story in the Bangor Daily News were moved by it. In short order, Herr Kreuz was a guest of the Greater Bangor Chamber of Commerce, became an honorary member of the Penobscot Indian Nation and the Old Town Rotary Club, was kissed by Rockport’s Andre the Seal, had a song written about him, visited with Gov. James Longley in Augusta, was thrown a 50th birthday party at a local restaurant, and was given a house lot in St. Francis. Where he might pop up next was anyone’s guess. NBC “Today” show host Tom Brokaw lauded Bangor as a “great place” because of its treatment of Kreuz. As his story spread worldwide, his allotted 15 minutes of fame stretched into days and then weeks. A year later, he would return to help Miss Maine cut a ribbon to officially open the Bangor Mall.
A San Francisco newspaper had the once-befuddled tourist flown to his original destination to be lavishly wined and dined there. When a reporter asked Kreuz after the public relations blitz if he had left his heart in San Francisco, he allegedly replied no, his heart would always belong in Bangor, thank you very much.
Once back in Germany, Kreuz continued to praise his newfound American friends. “If Kennedy can say ‘I am a Berliner,’ then I can say, I am a Bangor,”’ he told reporters on his arrival at Frankfurt International Airport, and although his sentiments may have lost something in the translation, Bangorians glowed with appreciation every bit as much as had Germans when President John F. Kennedy so famously declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” during a 1963 trip to Berlin.
Kreuz “never more wanted to leave Bangor,” he told reporters. “You must say only ‘wonderful, wonderful’ of what goes on in America.”
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.