Friday, September 20, 1996
Eat, drink and be merry, Zinzinnati

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

At noon Saturday, an irresistible urge will come over me. I'll drop whatever I'm doing and haul my bucket downtown to Oktoberfest.

Me and my bucket - a tin-plated beer pail decorated with the words Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, and two imperial German eagles holding their wings aloft in a military salute or an obscene gesture - have never missed an Oktoberfest since the thing began in 1976.

Twenty Oktoberfests later, I'm still going, pouring beer into the bucket and down the hatch. Why?

Beats me.

My wife the genealogist - always one to put a sensible face on the silly things we do - says we go out of a sense of tradition. ''It's a way to honor your German heritage,'' says the woman who makes her living trimming other people's family trees.

I'm not so sure.

The Radels came here over a century ago from the Vaterland. But, I don't feel very German. I can't speak the language. In college, I scraped by with Cs and Ds while trying to decipher the difference between gesundheit and gemutlichkeit.

Look at Oktoberfest through a dispassionate eye, a German eye. It's a place where crowds pack downtown streets to drink beer, eat sausage, smell sauerkraut, chew the fat and dance like a flock of flightless birds.

This is not an event that cries out for repeat visits. So, why do I go back every year? I'm still figuring that one out.

I don't drink that much. Two dark beers and I'm asleep.

Greasy fried sausages give me killer indigestion. And I'm not sweet on kraut.

Fred Astaire - or, his real name, Frederick Austerlitz - I'm not. That's why I've never engaged in the chicken dance. I don't do the hokeypokey either. Or its cousin, the Macarena.

But, I must do Oktoberfest.

For me, Oktoberfest's appeal is not in the food and drink or the chicken dancing. It's in the people-watching.

I like seeing hundreds of thousands of Cincinnatians in one place with no one wearing a bitter beer face.

Oktoberfest is the place where Cincinnati gladly trades its dour image for two days of rebellious fun downtown. Containers of beverages being consumed in the open. Walking against the ''Don't Walk'' lights. Standing in the middle of an intersection, laughing with friends, watching the traffic lights change from green to yellow to red and no one bothering to move. Dancing in the streets.

It's not open revolution, utter madness or the world's greatest fun place. But, I'll take all I can get in a city that can be so stuffy it forgets how to laugh at itself.

This carefree feeling is what keeps me coming back for more.

At Oktoberfest, I always arrive early and leave the same way. The food's fresher. The drunks are fewer. And, the lines to the Port-o-lets are shorter.

Since this is a German festival, it's OK to organize it like you're going into battle.

Upon arrival, we immediately commandeer a table. This is Fort Oktoberfest, our base of operations.

One person guards the fort and pores over the map. Need to find the stands selling dill pickles and soft pretzels.

After the menu is checked and everyone's order placed, designated runners fan out. They're foraging for food. And something foamy to wash it down.

Periodic reconnaissance missions are made to the souvenir booths. Like Oktoberfest's first year, a new beer bucket is for sale. And, as in the previous 20 years, it will sell out. People say they just buy them to keep their collections complete. But I always see some of the very same buckets being filled at the beer booths.

This year's bucket celebrates Oktoberfest's 20th anniversary. A parade of figures marches across its face.

Leading the parade is a short, bug-eyed cartoon chicken wearing Germany's gift to the world of fashion, green lederhosen. All this bird needs is a ski cap and he could pass for a Where's Waldo with feathers.

This year's model looks nice. But I'll keep my old bucket. It's my return ticket to Oktoberfest.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.