A Matter of Principle


They argued on the train the entire forty-five minutes from Munich. And when they got off at the little station and walked past the Rathaus and the Kirche to the woods at the edge of the village they didn’t say a single word to each other.



Nevertheless, the husband did his usual thing when they reached the woods: he stopped and pulled out a map, studied it, and said, “We go this way.”


He pointed to a forest road going into the woods.


The wife said, “If you say so.”


“I say so.”


Even though the road was certainly wide enough for them to have walked side by side, they didn’t. The husband walked in front and the wife walked behind.


After five minutes or so, the wife said, “John?”


“Yes?” he said.


“Can we stop a moment? Just for a moment?”


“Yes, certainly. Why not?”


Both of them stopped.


“John,” she said, “I don’t like this. I don’t like it at all. When we don’t talk to each other.”


“I don’t like it either.”


“I’m not even sure what we were arguing about. Back there. On the train.”


“I’m not sure either.”


The wife took the husband’s hand.


“So are we all right now?” said the wife. “Are we better?”


“I think so.”


“Because I can’t stand it that way.”


“I can’t either,” said the husband.


They walked on, now holding hands, side by side, and almost immediately the woods ahead of them opened up into a meadow of tall grass bordered by rounded hills. A trail cut through the grass toward a far woods. They actually tried walking side by side as they started across the meadow, but the trail was too narrow and the grass on either side was too high.


“So why don’t you go first?” said the wife.


“All right,” said the husband, “if you want.”


As they walked, the husband in front and the wife following, the husband looked ahead and was surprised to see that two cyclists – not two walkers, but two cyclists – had just come out of the woods at the far end of the meadow and were negotiating their bikes along the trail toward them.


The husband stopped.


“Oh!” said the wife coming up right behind him and also seeing the cyclists.


“Will you look at that?” said the husband.


The cyclists had to be riding mountain bikes from the way they bounced around, barely staying on the trail. And, as they got closer, the husband could see that the riders were weren’t ordinary riders, but, of all things, soldiers: olive colored uniforms with camouflage spots, combat helmets, rifles slung across their backs, the rifles jostling back and forth as the bikes bounced.


Here was the thing: The husband remembered something from somewhere out of the past about the principle of right-of-way in such situations. The principle stated, as he recalled, that bikes were obligated to give way to walkers.  Which meant, as he understood it, that these cyclists must give way to him.


“John!” said the wife.


She was already standing in the grass away from the trail.


“Yes,” said the husband.


“The bikes are coming!”


“I see,” he said.


But, he joined her, nevertheless, in the tall grass beside the trail.


The wife surprised him by taking his hand.


“So, are we all right now? Are we better? ”


“Yes,” he said.


She said, “I can’t stand it when we argue.”


The two riders were almost upon them. They were putting all their concentration into their peddling. But, as they passed, one of them, the second one, uttered something that sounded like, “Thanks,” and didn’t sound at all like “Danke.”


“Americans?” called the wife after the soldiers.


“You bet! One hundred percent!” shouted the second soldier back.


“Then, have a good day,” called out the wife.


The husband watched the two soldiers disappear into the woods which he and the wife had just come out of.


“So, shall we?” he said.


After they had walked for a while toward the far woods, the husband in front and the wife behind, he said, “Wasn’t that a little much?”


“What was a little much?”


“Saying to those two guys, ‘Have a good day!'”


“What? That? No, I don’t think so. They’re Americans, after all.”


“I think it was a little much.”


* * *


Ahead of them motorcycles came out of the woods at the far end of the meadow. There must have been 10 or 15 of them. And they were heading down the trail toward them, the riders bouncing this way and that, the engines ratcheting up and down. And again:  Soldiers.


“John!” shouted the wife.


The first motorcycle stopped only inches away from the husband, the tire almost rubbing up against his trousers. All the motorcycles behind stopped, their engines popping up and down.


“Something wrong, Mac?” said the soldier on the first machine.


“You have absolutely no right . . . ,” started the husband,


“John!” said his wife.


The first soldier revved his engine and the motorcycles weaved off down the trail. But the last motorcycle stopped. The husband could tell from the stripes on this soldier’s sleeve that he held the rank of sergeant.


“You two all right?” the sergeant said.


“Yes, fine,” said the wife.


“My apologies.”


“You’re American?” asked the wife.


“Oh, sure. One hundred percent.”


The sergeant revved his engine and started off.


“Have a great day!” shouted the wife after the sergeant.


The husband watched the sergeant ride down the trail until he joined the others who were waiting for him in front of the woods.


“So, shall we?” said the husband.


He indicated the rest of the trail and they began to walk on.


After they had walked for a while toward the far woods, he said, “Wasn’t that a little much?”


“What was a little much?”


“Saying to those two guys, ‘Have a good day!'”


“What? That? No, I don’t think so. They’re Americans.”


“I think it was a little much.”


* * *


The husband began to hear engines, a lot of engines, and soon a whole battalion began to appear, half-tracks, jeeps, soldiers on foot, and several huge tanks. The tanks had protruding cannons, lumbering down the trail directly at them.


The husband set himself in the middle of the trail.


“John!” screamed the wife.


The first tank stopped. But, barely. It loomed over the husband and wife. If it had traveled further, say, even a foot further, well . . . .


“Hello, down there.”


The husband looked up and saw a soldier standing on the parapet of the tank. From the bar on his helmet the husband could tell that he was an officer, in fact, a lieutenant.


“You people okay?” said the lieutenant.


“Yes, fine,” said the wife.


“A bit of luck there. I mean, that we saw you. Otherwise, well, you know . . . .”


“I demand that you make way for us,” said the husband.


“What?” said the lieutenant.


“I demand that you remove all of these machines and make the trail clear for us.”


“John!” said the wife.


Just at that moment a jeep with two flags fluttering from its front bumpers came bouncing across the meadow toward the tank. An older officer sitting in the back seat stood up as soon as the jeep came to a stop bracing himself against the roll bar in front of him.


“Sir!” said the lieutenant in the parapet of the tank, snapping to attention and throwing a salute.


The older officer returned the salute in an off-handed manner, got out of the jeep and approached the husband and wife.


“And may I inquire just what the hell the two of you are doing?”


“What do you mean, what the hell we’re doing?” said the husband. “We’re taking a walk.”


“John!” said the wife.


“Sir!” said the lieutenant from the turret of the tank.


“Yes?” said the older officer looking up at the lieutenant.


“With all due respect, sir, as a matter of fact, sir, it is allowed. By German law. That is, taking a walk on public lands.”


“Really?” said the older officer.


“Sir, it’s in the German law. And, also, sir, if I may say so, sir, there’s the principle of right-of-way. Not only in German law but in the laws of most advanced western countries. Which everybody knows, sir, out on the trail. For example, to take the most basic right-of-way, sir, when cyclists meet walkers everyone knows that the cyclists must give way to the walkers. To extend this principle further, sir, when motorcyclists meet cyclists the motorcyclists must give way to the cyclists; and, sir, if motorcyclists were to meet an army battalion maneuvering, such as we are, sir, tanks, half-tracks, jeeps, that kind of thing, sir, the army battalion has to give way to the motorcyclists. Therefore, to extend this reasoning to its logical conclusion, sir, if it were to happen sometime in the future, sir, or even now, that walkers were to meet an army battalion maneuvering in the field, sir, according to accepted principles, the army battalion would have to give way to the walkers.”


“Is that so?” said the older officer.


“Yes, sir,” said the lieutenant.


“Well, then, if that’s what it actually says . . . .”


“It actually does, sir.”


“Well, then . . . .”


The older officer went back to his jeep, reached toward its dashboard, pulled a microphone toward him and began to speak into it.


The jeep was far enough away that the husband couldn’t hear what the older officer was saying, but suddenly he heard motors revving up and the soldiers who had been smoking cigarettes slung their rifles over their shoulders, the lieutenant put on his goggles and disappeared down into the huge tank, the motor of the tank revved and it began to crawl backwards and then to the side.


In fact, the husband saw that the whole trail ahead of them was free all the way to the woods at the far end.


“So, shall we?” said the husband to the wife.


As they walked in single file past all the machines, the husband in front and the wife behind, for some reason the soldiers with their rifles slung across their backs began to cheer.


“You guys American?” the husband called out.


“You bet! One hundred percent!” came the calls back.


“Then, have a great day!”


The husband and wife walked on and at the woods the husband said, “There’s the trail,” pointing to where the trail widened into a forest road.


Just at that moment the woods opened up and instead of seeing the beautiful view of the sweeping meadow of tall grass bordered by rounded hills and a narrow trail cutting toward the far woods the husband now saw the more ordinary view of the village with its Rathaus and its Kirche and the railroad station where he and the wife would certainly now catch the train to back to Munich.


“We go this way,” he said to his wife.






Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 100 stories published in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review, and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, and twelve of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was a finalist for a collection of short stories in the Iowa Publication Awards for Short Fiction, the George Garrett Fiction Prize for Best Book of Short Stories or Short Novel, and the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.