I am military brat – my dad did thirty years in the Air Force – and, in October of 1986, my family landed in West Germany for my dad’s second tour of duty there.
It’s been a long time since I gave that dreary October day when I enrolled at Bitburg High School much thought. The memories came rushing back to me this month, though, when I got permission to include a track from Anthrax – arguably one of the greatest metal bands of the last three decades –in the March Trail Mix.
My first period class that freshman year was a geography course taught by Mr. Bob Gaittens. I can remember walking into that first class and being awed by this obviously eccentric educator. I was struck by his height, his wild, grayish hair, and his enormously thick glasses. A furtive first survey of the room only added to my unease; I took in the walls laden with heavy metal posters and the collection of foreboding guys with big hair and black leather jackets giving me the once over.
I was a fish out of water.
From day one, Mr. Gaittens never got my name right. For a year, I was “Stallings.” He didn’t even get it right when I got the balls to buy that Quiet Riot poster off of his wall. I felt I had arrived – this pegged jean, multi-hued Chuck Taylor wearing wannabe skater – turning over five bucks for that Metal Health era concert poster!
“That’s a good one, Stallings,” he said.
During the 1980s, heavy metal bands regularly played to rabid crowds in clubs and stadiums across Europe. Mr. Gaittens gained a level of notoriety for packing his van with high school metal heads and heading across Germany to catch bands like Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, Dokken, Megadeth, and, of course, Anthrax. Over the ensuing twenty-five years, those trips have achieved a level of infamy that is well deserved.
“Those road trips were amazing,” says Paul Amore, a friend of mine from high school who is now an attorney in California. “They were formative experiences for me. Mr. Gaittens knew we were kids – he never provided drugs or alcohol and I never saw him drink or smoke – but he got us backstage and into record label parties that a lot of kids didn’t get into.”
Mr. Gaittens was a legend among both fans and bands during those golden years of metal in Europe. He was an early contributor to Metal Hammer, the long running digest for metal fans, and I am well familiar with the tale of crowds parting so Mr. Gaittens could make it to the front of the stage. My friend Paul also reminded me of the time Mr. Gaittens bought a cake for one of the guys in Anthrax that was promptly stepped on by one of his students as the group exited the van.
And, of course, there is this video on YouTube, showing Mr. Gaittens, easily in his fifties, stage diving – yes, stage diving – during a show in Bochum, West Germany. If skeptical, start watching around the 3:42 mark.
Mr. Gaittens died, quite suddenly, right before my senior year. The passing of this larger than life teacher and coach left a major void in my high school. Though I never had another class with him, I always appreciated the passion he had for music. He made it cool – and okay – to love rock and roll music wholeheartedly well into adulthood and went so far, one year, as to have “If it’s too loud, you’re too old” printed under his yearbook picture. That’s great advice, and I heed it still.