PAOLA — “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” was a box office hit comedy released in 1966 during the height of the Cold War.
But for four U.S. Army veterans who served together in the early 1980s during the Cold War, the thought of Russians coming into West Germany was no laughing matter.
The four friends, who are now scattered across the country in Washington, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas, reunited Friday, July 19, for a German meal at Beethoven’s No. 9 restaurant in Paola.
“It’s the only good German restaurant in the Kansas City area,” said Duane Copowycz, a North Kansas City resident who had previously dined at Beethoven’s, located at 2 W. Piankishaw St.
He hoped Ken “Doc” Caldwell, a medic in the Army, brought his appetite.
“It’s good, but I have to warn you, it’s a lot of food,” Copowycz said.
Across the table, Kevin Brown thumbed the brim of his cowboy hat. The former bull rider from Mansfield, Texas, was a mechanic in the Army and liked that the Germany people who weren’t into punk rock were big fans of country music and enjoyed westerns, cowboys and rodeo.
“They liked groups like the Oak Ridge Boys and Alabama,” he said. “They liked everything about the West.”
“I told some (Germans) that I was from Kansas City, and they had never heard of it,” he said. “I told them it’s near the birthplace of Jesse James, and they knew where that was. They knew everything about Jesse James.”
Copowycz and the fourth member of their group, Harvey “Steff” Steffensen, who resides near Tacoma, Wash., both served in the infantry.
Some hadn’t seen each other for more than 35 years.
The four Army buddies and members of their families had gathered earlier in Garnett and were escorted to Paola by a dozen members of the American Legion Riders Chapter 156 of Paola.
Bruce Hurt of the Legion Riders looked at the four veterans piling out of their vehicles — some of the younger family members rode on back of the bikes — in the parking lot across from the restaurant on a hot July evening where the temperature still hovered around 100 degrees.
“They seem like a good bunch of guys,” Hurt said. “The ride was warm but exhilarating.”
Copowycz was touched by the escort.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” he said.
Steffensen said he appreciated the escort. He hugged a couple of American Legion Riders outside the restaurant as the contingent stood in the street, thanking the dozen motorcyclists.
“It was great,” Steffensen said. “I was surprised. I wasn’t expecting anything like that.”
What Steffensen and his friends were prepared for while serving in West Germany was a Soviet tank-led invasion, which likely would have started from Czechoslovakia and pushed through the Fulda Gap in West Germany.
The four veterans were stationed near Erlangen, West Germany, where the U.S. troops were vastly outnumbered and heavily outgunned, the friends agreed.
“We were supposed to defend the Fulda Gap,” Caldwell, a Hickory, Ky., resident said. “But everyone knew we couldn’t have stopped them. They would have rolled right over us.”
Steffensen leaned back in his chair. “It would have been like, ‘Remember the Alamo’.”
Historians say Fulda Gap was of great significance because its lowlands provided a corridor for Soviet tanks to make a surprise attack. And both sides knew it.
“People don’t think about the Cold War because there wasn’t an actual war, but it was serious business,” Caldwell said.
The Soviet invasion never came.
Steffensen said the four buddies at the restaurant were part of a group of 10 soldiers who became friends in Germany. He said plans fell through at the last minute for a couple of the others who wanted to attend.
He talked about the fun the group used to have when they weren’t on duty — including a trip to a club they stumbled upon that had a western theme.
“You had to pay something like $5,000 a year to be a member of this club, so I’m not sure how we got in,” Steffensen said. “People had different roles and were dressed up in costumes. They even had a false front of a western town.”
The four friends continued to reminisce into the evening. And there wasn’t a Cold War Russian in sight.