Erwin Kreuz

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Erwin Kreuz (born 1927) was a West German tourist to the United States who achieved international celebrity in the late 1970s for mistaking the city of Bangor, Maine for San Francisco, California. The incident made Kreuz a folkloric figure whose story continues to be told in various media as an iconic (if extreme) example of an airline traveler not reaching his or her intended destination.

Original incident (1977)[edit]

A brewery worker from a village near Augsburg, Bavaria, Kreuz spoke no English and had never experienced international travel except for a day-trip to Switzerland when he boarded a World Airways charter flight from Germany to San Francisco in October 1977. When the plane stopped at the Bangor International Airport to refuel and allow passengers to clear American customs and immigration before re-boarding, Kreuz mistakenly believed he had arrived in California, and took a taxi into the city. For four days, he vainly searched for the Golden Gate Bridge and other San Francisco landmarks. The only sight which resonated with his prior image of the California city were the two local Chinese restaurants. He concluded he was in a suburb of the metropolis, and only realized his mistake when a taxi driver somehow communicated to him, in response to his request to be taken to San Francisco, that it was a 3,000 mile journey. He ended up in a German-themed restaurant in nearby Old Town, Maine, whose German-speaking owner, Gertrude Romine, was the first to hear his story and give him a complete picture of where he was. The Romines found him a hotel room in the nearby town of Milford while trying to figure out what to do. His story was picked up by the local press, and soon went national.[1]

Bangor's response and local celebrity[edit]

The people of Bangor were so touched and amused to be mistaken for San Francisco that over the next 10 days Kreuz was transformed into a local celebrity. He was the guest of honor at an Oktoberfest event sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, was made an honorary member of the Penobscot Indian Tribe[2] and Old Town Rotary Club, given the keys to the city, and flown to the state capital in Augusta to meet the governor and secretary of state.[3] Kreuz' 50th birthday was celebrated at a gala party located, at his own request, at a McDonald's restaurant. He was allowed to flip the hamburgers.[4] A growing circle of local 'friends' organized sight-seeing trips for him around the region, accompanied everywhere by local press. Kreuz was by all reports impressed, grateful, and charming.[5] He also received three marriage invitations, and a couple in the northern Maine town of St. Francis gave him an acre of land.[6]

Kreuz as bi-national news-maker and San Francisco celebrity[edit]

Kreuz' story was reported in Time magazine, by the Associated Press, and on NBC's Today Show, where host Tom Brokaw lauded the people of Bangor for being such good hosts. The magazines Stern and Der Spiegel[7] told his story to the West German public. The people of San Francisco were equally amused, and the San Francisco Examiner paid to fly Kreuz to their city, where he was given an even stronger dose of celebrity treatment. Mayor George Moscone gave him the key to the city, Kreuz was feted in Chinatown,[8] and received a standing ovation when he was invited to enter the ring at the Cow Palace (where he was presented with a white cowboy hat, having received an Indian head-dress in Maine).[9]

Kreuz luckily had a sense of humor. He told Moscone he drank 17 beers a day, and when he finally boarded a flight back to West Germany, he posed with a huge sign (provided by World Airways) that said, in English and German "please let me off in Frankfurt"[10]

Second trip to Bangor (1978): The price of celebrity[edit]

Kreuz returned to Bangor exactly a year later (October 1978) for a month-long visit, courtesy of the Equitable Life Assurance company, to officiate at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for their new Bangor Mall.[11] It was the first shopping mall he'd seen.[12] The journey cemented (and capitalized upon) Kreuz' celebrity/newsmaker status, garnering nearly as much publicity for Kreuz (and the Mall) as the incident the previous year.

Kreuz' lingering celebrity cost him his job, however. The West German brewery that employed him attempted to use his news-worthiness for its own purposes, but bristled when Kreuz asked for compensation beyond his laborer's salary. In an interview with the West German press, he made the spontaneous but naive admission that he drank a competitor's brand of beer. His month-long absence to promote an American shopping mall (and during the Oktoberfest season) was likely the final straw, as he was fired from his job of 9 1/2 years when he returned the following month.[13]

Third trip to Bangor (1979): The limits of celebrity[edit]

Kreuz returned to Bangor a third and final time in early 1979, now at his own expense and accompanied by little fanfare. Hoping to trade on his celebrity to find a job and emigrate, he was disappointed when his only forthcoming offer was a low-paying janitorial position at the Bangor Mall. Before flying back to West Germany and an uncertain future, he gave an exit interview to the Bangor Daily News in which he said he was not bitter and 'grateful' for the one job offer and the kindness of strangers, but that this third trip to Bangor had been a mistake. He never returned to the U.S. but faithfully paid the yearly tax on his small plot of land in northern Maine, which was still being paid yearly as of 1984.[14]

Kreuz as travel folklore[edit]

Kreuz' story continued to be told and re-told into the 21st century as not only Maine folklore, but the folklore of modern air travel. The Kreuz story has been related in Bill Harris' Landscapes of America, vol.2 (1987)[15] and An American Moment (1990),[16] and it helped Gail Fine illustrate a problem in philosophy in her 1999 Oxford U. Press book Plato Two: Ethics, Politics, Religion, and the Soul.[17] Barbara Wilson and Barbara Sjoholm made it the basis for a short story in their 1988 collection Miss Venezuela.[18] The Washington Post revived the Kreuz incident when Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens) was diverted to Bangor in the paranoid aftermath of September 11th,[19] and Kreuz' story was published in Frommer's Maine Coast Guide as late as 2009.[20] Former NY Times reporter Blake Fleetwood recalled the Kreuz incident in a Huffington Post essay of 2007, in which he revealed that mistakes like Kreuz' were more common than most realize.[21]

Kreuz is the subject of a ballad recorded by Maine folksinger Wendell Austin.[22]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Golden Gate Bound German Visits Bangor By Mistake", Bangor Daily News, Oct. 20, 1977; Ibid, Oct. 25, 1977; Ibid, Oct. 4, 1978; Lewiston Daily Sun, March 19, 1979
  2. ^ "3,000 Mile Error Ends with a Pleasant Visit" (UPI) Boca Raton (Fla.) News, Oct. 25, 1977, p. 2
  3. ^ "German Tourist Ready to Stay in Maine", Portland (Me.) Telegraph, Oct. 26, 1977, p. 9
  4. ^ "Airline Puts Out Call for Errant Passenger" and "Big Mac Blitz", Bangor Daily News, Oct. 21, 1977, p. 10
  5. ^ "Commentary" and "Andre Tries to Kiss Kreuz", Bangor Daily News, Oct. 28, 1977
  6. ^ "Land for Erwin Kreuz", Bangor Daily News, Oct. 27, 1977, p. 20
  7. ^ Der Spiegel, vol. 31, Issues 46-49, p. 84
  8. ^ San Francisco Paper Lays Out Red Carpet For Kreuz
  9. ^ "Wrong Way Tourist's Weekend Fit for King" (UPI) Bangor Daily News, Oct. 31, 1977, p. 2;"Errant German Tourist Lives it Up Wild West Frisco Style, The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), Nov. 1, 1977; Lakeland Ledger, Sept. 26, 1978; Reading Eagle, Sept. 15, 1978; Pittsburgh Press-Gazette, Sept. 20, 1978
  10. ^ Bangor Daily News, Nov. 1, 1977
  11. ^ Reading Eagle, Sept. 15, 1978, p. 2
  12. ^ Lewiston Evening Journal, Oct. 6, 1978
  13. ^ "Future in Bangor Pales: Erwin Kreuz Returns to Germany", Bangor Daily News, Mar. 16, 1979
  14. ^ Montreal Gazette, July 4, 1984; "Future in Bangor Pales: Erwin Kreuz Returns to Germany", Bangor Daily News, Mar. 16, 1979
  15. ^ Bill Harris, Landscapes of America vol. 2 (Crescent, 1987, p. 5)
  16. ^ Bill Harris, An American Moment (NY: Random House, 1990), p. 20
  17. ^ Gail Fine, Plato Two: Ethics, Politics, Religion, and the Soul (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1999, p. 368)
  18. ^ Barbara Wilson and Barbara Sjoholm, Miss Venezuela (Seal Press, 1988)
  19. ^ "Bangor is Used to Surprise Landings: Airport is also a Key Stop for Troops", Washington Post, Oct. 17, 2004
  20. ^ Frommer's Maine Coast (2009), p. 186"
  21. ^ Blake Fleetwood, "Barbara Corcoran Takes 202 Mile Detour", Huffpost Politics, posted May 4, 2007
  22. ^ "Future in Bangor Pales: Erwin Kreuz Returns to Germany", Bangor Daily News, Mar. 16, 1979