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A look back at the saga of Erwin Kreuz

By ED LION

BANGOR, Maine -- Nearly seven years ago a Bavarian brewery worker who spoke no English gave the world a hearty laugh when he got off a plane too early and spent three days in Bangor, thinking it was San Francisco.

Erwin Kreuz' monumental error was only discovered after he tried to ask a cab driver to take him to downtown San Francisco -- and through a local woman who spoke German discovered he was on the wrong coast.

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The error made headlines across the world, propelled the hearty Kreuz -- who once boasted he drank 17 beers a day -- into a hero-celebrity and put Bangor into the international limelight.

Friends of Kreuz in Maine have long since lost touch with him, but his mistake is something they think about often.

'It was so funny,' recalled Gertrude Romine, 60, a German-speaker who first explained to Kreuz, then 49, that Bangor was not the City by the Bay.

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'He couldn't speak any English and didn't know,' she recently said. 'He knew there were hills around San Francisco and when he saw the hills around Bangor he figured he was in the right area.'

It all started when Kreuz, who had only taken a one-day trip to Switzerland before, decided to spend a vacation in San Francisco in October 1977.

He took a charter flight, which stopped for refueling and for passengers to clear customs at Bangor International Airport.

'He was supposed to reboard but he thought he was in California at the destination,' Mrs. Romine said.

Kreuz checked into the Bangor House hotel, wandered around and spent some time quaffing beers at a tavern. The waitresses there had no inkling that anything was amiss.

Then Kreuz had to leave the Bangor House because the hotel had been booked up with previous reservations and Kreuz began to think maybe Bangor wasn't San Francisco after all but a Bay Area suburb.

He asked a cab driver to take him to downtown San Francisco and the astonished cabbie sped off, apparently saying he was crazy -- all making Kreuz more confused.

Finally a waitress at the tavern put him in touch with Mrs. Romine, a Czechoslovakian immigrant who speaks German, and his error was discovered.

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In the following days Mrs. Romine and her family took Kreuz under their wing and word of his error spread, hitting the newspapers and capturing theimagination of the state, then the world.

Kreuz, a bachelor, met the governor of Maine, was made an honorary member of the Penobscot Indian tribe, fed New England's most famous animal, Andre the Seal, and even received several marriage proposals.

Then he was flown to San Francisco at the expense of the Examiner newspaper.

There he attended a rodeo at the Cow Palace, was given a Chinese name by residents of that city's famed Chinatown and confided to Mayor George Moscone that he drank an average of 17 beers a day.

When he finally left, stewardesses gave him a giant tag saying in English and German, 'Please let me off in Frankfurt.' When he arrived back in Germany he was met by a jubilant crowd who hoisted him on their shoulders.

Much to the pride of Mainers, he said he prefered Bangor to San Francisco and elegantly told a gaggle of reporters meeting him at Frankfurt International Airport, 'If Kennedy can say 'I am a Berliner,' then I am a Bangor.'

He has twice come back to Maine -- the last time in 1979 -- and visited Mrs. Romine and her family, who live in the Bangor suburb of Old Town.

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On one of those visits he dedicated the Bangor Mall and a couple who were selling land in the tiny northern Maine town of St. Francis gave him an acre of undeveloped brushland as a gesture of good will so he could be an American land-owner.

Officials in St. Francis -- a town flush along the Canadian border with a population of 839 -- say they have never seen Kreuz but that he is a good tax payer, annually paying his 'under $20' real estate bill on the land, valued at $1,000.

'He pays every year,' said tax collector Belinda Michaud. 'I send out the bill to his address in the West German town of Adelsreid every year and a few months later I get a money order from him.

'It's in American currency. I don't get a note or letter but I hear he doesn't speak English anyway.'

Mrs. Romine says she has since lost touch with Kreuz, but often thinks about what she calls 'the funniest thing I have ever seen.'

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