One Tough Woman

Ron Karpinski  ©1995


A silky perfume trailed in her wake, as she swept past.  It stunned the senses, made you want to follow.  Later, you wondered if she had been real or just a dream.

It could have been a dream, except for one thing.  She left too much behind.  Most dreams fade from memory by the time we wake up; but I have never forgotten her.

Karen Beaman brightened my life for one full year.  A free and happy spirit, she led the way on a short, wild ride that changed me forever; then, as quickly as she had arrived, she was gone.

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Karen and I met in the summer of 1982, at the Metropolitan Club in Stuttgart, Germany.  The Metro Club served as a meeting ground for English speaking people.  I had been stationed there by the army, and Karen came over on a scholastic grant.  

Back in the states, Karen worked for a bank where she managed a large computer programming department.  At night, she studied toward a doctorate in linguistics.

The bank gave Karen a one year leave of absence to conduct research.  Her dissertation covered the German "Schwäbisch" dialect.  First hand interviews would help trace its origins.

To understand Schwäbisch, one must imagine a region where people have, over time, shorten some words, combine others, and changed the meanings of still others, resulting in a hybrid form of the language.  Karen spoke Schwäbisch like a native.  She lived in a student commune near the University of Stuttgart, and we saw each other on Tuesday evenings at the Metro Club.

*          *          *          *          *

For many expatriates in the area, the Metro Club formed the nucleus of our social lives.  Mostly in our twenties and thirties, we were "joiners" and "doers," people who gave freely of their time and talents.  Active and outgoing, we were a mix of Germans, Americans, and a few other odd flavors.

Some folks worked for IBM, Daimler-Benz, and other large firms.  A few, like me, served in the military; and, once in a while, a fresh breath of air like Karen floated in.

*          *          *          *          *

Meetings were held downtown at the America House, an extension of the U.S. Consulate.  Members took turns giving programs, often slide shows from recent travels abroad.  Other times, we toured museums, parks, and historic buildings.

Afterwards, the group ambled across the street to the Stadtgarten Restaurant.  Sitting around that one great long table, we drank wine and talked until midnight.

Weekends were reserved for the great outdoors.  When the weather allowed, we took short trips; that is to say, when it didn't rain too hard.  In a country where it rains so much of the time, you learn not to let a few sprinkles spoil your plans.

Mostly, we went on short hikes or took train trips to nearby cities.  On dry weekends, we rode bicycles through the countryside.

One person took charge and planned a route.  He or she might hand out treasure maps, with prizes along the way.  Usually, the reward turned out to be a vintage bottle of local red wine.  Eight, twelve, or twenty cyclists met on a Saturday morning, fiddled with their bikes for a few minutes, and then headed out.

*          *          *          *          *

It's funny, the little things you remember.  Karen always wore a bikini under her blouse and blue jeans.  As we pedaled down the bike path, she lead the way.  If a lake were within a hundred yards, she smelled it out and begged the group to stop for a swim.

Before the rest of us had parked our bikes, Karen flung her clothes in the air and sprinted for the water.  Rain or cold, it made no difference to a country girl from Virginia.  Along with her clothes, she shed a vibrant energy that rubbed off on others; before long, we were all wet.

Karen glowed with a natural, wholesome beauty.  She had perfect, smooth skin.  Some people can spend ten minutes in the sun and turn golden brown, and Karen had that gift.  Long honey blonde hair and well-defined curves filled out the package.

Her bubbly approach to life drew men like bees on nectar.  No man could resist Karen.  She had a quick wit and a keen intellect that made her all the more enticing.

At twenty-nine, Karen enjoyed the prime years of her life.  She must have known the effect she had on men.  Wisely, she kept it in check, always one step ahead.

The best defense is a good offense, they say.  Karen peppered men with questions, a constant stream of chatter.  Mostly, she probed for opinions on sticky world issues of the day.  You had to stay up on the news, if you wanted to hang around Karen.

That's what appealed to me most about her.  She had both sensual and cerebral sides; and they never seemed in conflict.

A few photos and four or five weathered post cards are all that I have left from Karen.  Reading those words again after twelve years, her energy leaps off the page.  Her short, strong sentences cut through the thick and got right to the heart of an issue.   How clear were her thoughts on life.

This was a rare and gifted woman.  If once I thought we might have made a good match, those old post cards brought me back down to earth.  Karen would have been far too much of a woman for me.

*          *          *          *          *

Karen would have been too much of a woman for most any man.  Once, on a bike tour, she took a fall that would have sent a normal man to the hospital . . . but not her. It happened near Tübingen.

The day began like many others.  A group from the club met at a parking lot in Leinfelden and, after a brief equipment check, fell into single-file, pedaling down the Siebenmühlental bike path.  A few hours later, we became lost in a small town and couldn't find the marked trail shown on the map.

In the middle of town, an old man slept on a kitchen stool, propped against a whitewashed stone wall just a few feet from the roadside.  The leader of our group woke the old man and asked him for directions.  The reply came in Schwäbisch.  Our leader turned to the group and said, "I can't make out a word he's saying."

Karen said, "I'll give it a try."  She spoke with the man at length -– in Schwäbisch -– and he told her the way to the forest path leading out of town.  The old man flirted, and Karen flirted back.  They both laughed.  Then he asked where she came from.

When she told him she came from California, the old man fell off his stool.  He refused to believe that a foreigner could speak Schwäbisch so well.  We left him scratching his head and rode off down the road.

Soon, we reached a small meadow in the woods.  Friends had driven up earlier in the day and waited with food and drink.  A fire roared in a huge open pit.

Over the open flame, we cooked small chunks of home made bread and thin strips of meat.  Then we sat and ate at a rough hewn wooden table.  Later, we gathered in a circle around the fire and talked.  The afternoon slipped by.

The plan had been to load the bikes onto a truck and drive back to Stuttgart; but, when it came time to leave, some of us weren't quite ready to call it a day.  Eberhard, Brigitte, Karen, Bob, Eva, and I decided to ride our bikes back home, as well.

Waving good bye to the others, we pedaled off through the woods.  A short time later, we came upon a fork in the road.  Eberhard and Brigitte opted to go left while the rest of us went right.  We all agreed to meet again farther down the trail.

Deep in the forest, a wide cinder path trail wound beneath tall pines; but, away from the shelter of the trees, the smooth cinder path ended.  Out in the open, it widened into a double rutted dirt road.

A slight crown rose in the middle, like a tractor churns up in wet weather.  It hadn't rained in a while, though, and the ground had turned hard under the sun.  Loose gravel lay strewn across the surface.

Bob took the lead down a steep hill.  At the bottom of the hill, a small duck pond lay off to the left, and the road turned sharply to the right.  Bob sped along briskly, the cool wind pelting him in the face.

Karen proved game, trailing perhaps a little too close  behind.  Ever the cautious one, I held back, coasting a good twenty yards behind her.  As the scene spread before me, I could see it coming.  In that one split second, a thousand thoughts ran through my mind.  I wanted to shout out to her, but no sound came from my mouth.

As he reached the bottom of the hill, Bob leaned hard to the right, into the turn.  His wheels hugged the right groove in the road, and he whipped around the corner.  A second later, he had passed from sight.

Karen, going a little too fast, tried to follow Bob into the turn; but her front wheel left the safety of the groove and drifted up onto the crown.  She started skidding in the loose gravel.

When she tried to nudge her bike down off the crown, it flipped out from under her.  The bike shot off to the left, and Karen fell straight down.  She hit the ground with a thud on her right side.

Like a slow motion film, a silent cloud of soft brown dust rose in the air.  As the soft puff began to settle, Karen rose off the ground again and hurtled forward.  Long seconds passed, before she skidded to a halt in the gravel.

Squeezing the brake levers, I fought hard to keep my own bike under control.  At first, the brakes didn't grab, but then they took hold, and I came to a halt a few feet behind where Karen lay in the road.  Bob had heard the noise and came running back.

*          *          *          *          *

Karen sat upright on the ground.  Her right knee had been gashed open to the bone, and the right leg, hip, and arm all had been badly scraped.  A fine coat of powder caked her entire body.

Bob and I searched for items with which to clean the wounds.  We rinsed out the dirt with water from plastic drinking bottles and applied dressings made from Kleenex tissues.  Bob gently placed a pressure bandage on Karen's knee, made from an extra shirt he'd torn up.

We watched Karen for signs of shock.  There is always a chance that a person will go into shock after a bad fall; but Karen remained calm and composed through it all.

The truth is, she worried more about the bike than her own state of health.  She had borrowed it from a roommate; and, from the look of concern on her face, he may not have known she took it.

Bob straightened the handlebars, and the bike seemed roadworthy again.  We decided to get moving before Karen's leg stiffened up and kept her from riding.  Besides, she needed proper medical care, and, for that, we had to find a town.

Karen insisted that she could ride.  She flexed her bandaged knee a few times and took a test run up and down the path.  Satisfied, she let out a high-pitched rebel yell and pedaled off down the road.

Bob and I looked at each other and shook our heads.  Then we hurried to catch up. Gently this time, we pedaled off through the woods.

*          *          *          *          *

Eberhard and Brigitte waited by the side of the road, where we had agreed.  Since we were late, they had assumed something must have gone wrong.  When they saw Karen, their worst fears were confirmed.

A small inn came into view, and we headed for it.  In the front door we shuffled, bearing our wounded comrade.  The owner took one look at Karen and donated his first aid kit.

While the ladies tended to Karen's wounds in the restroom, the men secured a table and ordered wine.  After a long while, the ladies emerged and joined the table.  Karen, freshly scrubbed, sported more than a few shiny white badges of courage.

The next hour passed over a bottle of wine and stories of past bike mishaps.  Clinking glasses, we toasted Karen's toughness.  Someone offered to call a taxi to take her home, but she refused.

Slightly tipsy, we wobbled out into the twilight.  One by one, we found our bikes and mounted up.  The rest of the journey home passed without incident.


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