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The Cracker Barrel: Room in the inn

Fifty years ago, in the waning days of 1967, I was a young G.I. stationed in southern Germany. Thanksgiving had come and gone and now Christmas loomed ahead. It promised to be a singularly unmerry event. I was homesick as heck and most of the people I held dear lived on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Then the postcard came.

"Meet me in St. Moritz for Christmas. We can celebrate by skiing. Bring friends. Hanno."

Hanno was my former college German teacher, living in Germany during his sabbatical year. My spirits began soaring toward the height of the legendary Swiss Alps to which the postcard beckoned. No matter that I was a novice skier. Suddenly the world had regained its luster.

Early on Saturday morning a few days before Christmas, my roommate Tom and I and our mutual buddy Mike headed south in Mike's VW bus. All the way to the border the sky was heavily overcast, the sun a vague silver coin in the mist. Then as we crossed into Austria the clouds parted and sunshine filled the sky. "Good sign," said Mike. His words were to prove prophetic.

We drove on through the day, across the neck of Austria and through the tiny principality of Liechtenstein, on into Switzerland and the famous Alps. Night fell and on we drove, finally reaching St. Moritz around 10. After some confusion we found the address Hanno had given, which proved to be a half-timbered villa overlooking a lake. I knocked upon the door, only to learn there had been some mix-up, that Hanno was already on his way back to Germany and that the villa was closed for the holidays.

A hasty tour of town confirmed what I had begun to suspect: We were up a Swiss creek without a paddle. St. Moritz was a playground for the well-to-do; it was almost Christmas; lodging was, to put it mildly, at a premium.

Desperate, we returned to the villa and explained our plight. Please, we pleaded. We have no place to stay. Thus began a three-day fairy tale.

The proprietors of the villa, two elderly English spinsters, agreed to open their establishment to us. The next morning a knock on the door awoke us to the smell of hot chocolate and freshly baked rolls. Later we drove downtown, marveling at the grandeur of the mountains rising up from the shores of the lake. We gawked at the cars parked along the street: Ferraris, Aston Martins, Rolls Royces.

We bought tickets and took an aerial cable car up over the lake to the top of the mountains and spent half a day in a stone-and-glass lodge sipping hot wine and watching the rich and famous ski. For supper we went to an elegant restaurant our hosts had recommended and ate stuffed veal cutlets so tender and tasty we thought we'd died and gone to gourmet heaven.

And on it went. Each morning the gentle tap at the door brought mouth-watering breakfasts, followed by high adventure all day long. On Christmas Eve our hosts insisted that we eat with them, and sent us down to the wine cellar to pick out several bottles of vintage grape.

They served a dinner with so many courses we quit counting, and afterward we all sat around the fireplace sipping champagne and swapping stories. Just before midnight they had us throw open the huge casement windows so we could hear the bells, layer after layer of snow-gentled tolling, as sounds from every bell in Switzerland rolled majestically down the mountain valleys.

By the time we were ready to leave, we found ourselves nearly broke. We decided we'd have to wire back to the base for more money. But when, after some stammering, we explained our plight, the spinsters just smiled and presented us with a basket full of food for the trip home.

"We'd already decided you don't owe us a thing," they said. "We refuse to accept any money. On the very first Christmas there was no room in the inn. We would never want that to happen again."