Erwin Kreuz’ Stranger than Fiction Journey

By Tim Koster

The world is a massive place with so many different cultures to experience, foods to taste, and wonders to see. Taking the time to travel, whether its across the state, country, or the world, can be a magical experience. And since the invention of the airplane in 1903, the world feels as though it has shrunk.

Trips that would’ve taken days or weeks by car, boat, or train can now be done in a matter of hours. Reaching any corner of the globe is now a realistic possibility for anyone. However, despite the incredible advantages airplanes offer us, something as simple as a little rain or miscommunication can turn what was supposed to be a nice, relaxing time away from home into a stressful nightmare.

No one knows this better than Erwin Kreuz. With the exception of a day trip to Switzerland, he’d never stepped foot outside of his native Germany. In 1977, the 49-year-old Bavarian brewery worker knew it was finally time to take a much needed vacation. He spoke no English and his only experience with riding on an airplane involved a short trip to Berlin. None of this, however, was going to stop Kreuz from embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to San Francisco.

Why, out of the entire world, did he choose San Francisco? Well, he saw it on T.V. and thought it would be nice. So, on October 3rd, he boarded a World Airways flight from Frankfurt to the City by The Bay.

As you probably know, airplane technology in the 1970s was not as advanced as it is today. As such, Kreuz’ intercontinental flight could not be completed on a single tank of gas. Because of this, many Europe-to-America flights landed in Bangor, Maine to refuel before continuing on to its final destination. It was during this layover that a simple instance of miscommunication would send Kreuz on an unforgettable journey that would launch him from an average person to a figure of international fame.

In case it was obvious by the fact he was German brewery worker, it’s important to note that Kreuz really enjoyed partaking in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. According to reports, he would indulge in upwards of 17 beers in a single day and the day of his trip was no different.

When the plane landed in Bangor, the crew disembarked to be replaced by a new crew that would take the passengers on the final stretch of the flight. As one of the flight attendants made her way off the plane, she turned to Kreuz – who she knew was flying alone – and told him to “have a nice time in San Francisco”.

Kreuz, who spoke no English and was, well, drunk, heard her benevolent well-wishes and came to the conclusion that the plane had landed in California and immediately grabbed his bags, made his way off the plane, through customs, and into the backseat of a waiting taxicab.

After getting a room at the Bangor House, a historic hotel in downtown Bangor, he set out to find San Francisco’s most notable sightseeing attractions. For four days he wandered the streets of Maine’s third largest city, desperately looking for the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, or any other landmarks he might recognize.

He didn’t find any, obviously.

What he did find was Chinese food restaurants, an obvious indication that he wasn’t some 3,000 miles away from where he wanted to be, but somewhere in the Chinatown suburb. After a quick pint (or several) at a local pub, he hailed another taxi and asked the driver to take him into San Francisco.

When the cabbie laughed and sped away, the evidence of his mistakes started to click. Kreuz reentered the bar and asked a waitress for directions, but the language barrier between them was great, so she contacted one of her neighbors, Gertrude Romine, who was a Czechoslovakian immigrant and spoke German.

Romine took Kreuz to her family’s German-American restaurant in the nearby town of Old Town, where she listened to his story and showed him a picture of where he actually was.

“It was so funny,” Romine said, according to this SFGate article. “He couldn’t speak any English and didn’t know. He knew there were hills around San Francisco and when he saw the hills around Bangor, he figured he was in the right area.”

The Bangor Daily News caught wind of the mishap and wrote an article about this truly bizarre tale. The article quickly spread both nationally and then internationally.

Arguably, the best part of this story is what happened next. It would’ve been so easy for people to write Kreuz off, to belittle and make fun of his mistake. Instead, the world became enthralled by him and his story. The people of Bangor were so amused by the idea that their little city was mistaken for San Francisco that they pulled out all the stops to make sure this man had the very best time of his life.

The local chamber of commerce made him the guest of honor for their Oktoberfest event, the Penobscot tribe and Old Town Rotary Club made him an honorary member, the Bangor mayor presented him with the keys to the city, he traveled to Augusta – the state capital – to meet Gov. James Longley and Secretary of State Markham Gartley, gala parties were held at a local McDonald’s (where he’d asked to visit because he wanted to try flipping burgers), and he allegedly received three marriage proposals.

Helga and Billy Elwood, a couple from the town of St. Francis, were so infatuated with Kreuz, they gifted him an acre of land overlooking the St. John River in hopes the wayward tourist would return to Maine someday. According to records, he continued to pay taxes on the land until 1984.

During his stay, the local paper compared Kreuz to another local celebrity: Andre the Seal, whom he got to meet. “Erwin Kreuz met Andre the Seal Thursday morning. They must have had a lot to talk about, because they have a great deal in common. Neither speaks a word of English; each ranks among the great communicators of our time. Both are media events of the first order.”

As Kreuz’s fame grew, the people of San Francisco wanted to make sure the new celebrity got a chance to actually make it to his final destination and word started to spread that the city would foot the bill to fly him to California. However, some Bangor residents took issue with this, jokingly claiming that Kreuz was one of them now. During a tour of a local jail – Kreuz apparently wanted to see an American jail for himself – the warden was quoted by the press as saying: “He wants to stay right here in Bangor. He doesn’t want to go to San Francisco.”

In the end, the misplaced German did find his way to California, paid for by the San Francisco Examiner. Upon touchdown, he was greeted with as much fanfare as he left with in Maine. He met the city’s mayor, George Moscone, just half-an-hour before the politician was set to meet with Prince Charles. He took a tour of the city in a cable car, received even more marriage requests, became an honorary member of the Wong Family Association at the Empress of China restaurant, and even attended a rodeo where he was gifted a white cowboy hat.

By the end of his trip, Kreuz’s story made its way into Time magazine, the Associated Press, The Today Show, and CBS Evening News. Back home in Germany, he was also featured in Stern and Der Spiegel magazines.

On October 31st, Kreuz boarded a plane in Oakland to make his return trip home. As one final joke to cap off this wild and ridiculous journey, he posed for a photo with his luggage and a massively oversized tag that read Please, let me off in Frankfurt in both English and German.

Upon his arrival in Frankfurt, he was greeted by the press, his friends, and coworkers, who gifted him with a 50 liter keg of beer. When asked, he declared that he liked his trip to Maine better than his trip to San Francisco, saying: “If Kennedy can say ‘I am a Berliner,’ then I am a Bangor”.

Returning to the States and a cruel twist of fate

Kreuz would make two more trips back to the United States, once in 1978 and again in 1979.

In 1978, he spent nearly a month in America on a trip paid for by the Equitable Life Assurance Company. His trip started with a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Bangor Mall – the first shopping mall he’d ever seen. From there, he traveled the country going to places like Boston and the Grand Canyon. Everywhere he went, he was met with celebrity status.

Unfortunately, his fame cost him his job back home. When his brewery tried to cash in on his celebrity status, Kreuz rightfully asked for additional compensation beyond his wages. Unwilling to do so, partnered with his absence from work for a month, he was let go shortly after his return.

He returned to the States one last time in 1979 at his own expense. Unlike his previous two trips, he was met with very little fanfare. It had seemed his fifteen minutes of fame had expired. With no prospects of work back in Germany, he hoped to trade whatever clout he had remaining for a job and a green card. Unfortunately, the only thing was able to find was a minimum wage job as the janitor for the Bangor Mall. Yeah, the same place he was the guest of honor for its ribbon cutting ceremony the year prior.

In a departing interview with the Bangor Daily News, he said he was grateful for the job offer and the kindness of strangers, but that his final trip to Maine had been a mistake.

The story of Erwin Kreuz is one the burned bright and burned fast. It captured the imagination and curiosity of people from all over the world. Following his return to Germany in 1979, there’s very little record of what happened to him. There’s no record of him getting married or having children. There hasn’t even been any evidence found to determine whether or not he’s passed away (he would be 94 at the time this article was written).

The truly remarkable thing about this story, I believe, is that it isn’t one that could ever be replicated. Getting lost like Kreuz did in the 1970s was an oddity. With today’s connectivity with the internet, cell phones, and GPS, the likelihood of someone mistaking a small city in Maine with a major metropolitan area in California would never happen. And if it did, the media and army of keyboard warriors out there would never allow such a simple mistake blossom into something as beautiful is this did.

On the bright side, if this story did happen today, Kreuz would’ve had absolutely no trouble finding work in one of Maine’s more than 150 microbreweries.

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