The annual Wurstfest celebration in New Braunfels offers a variety of food, fun, and entertainment, from families with German ancestry, to those who just pretend to be German for a day.
Katy Walterscheidt celebrates her husband’s German heritage.
“I come almost every year,” said Walterscheidt. “I’m married to a German, and so we love to celebrate Germans.”
The 10-day “Salute to Sausage” has become a cultural phenomenon. It began 51 years ago as Sausage Festival, but later morphed into what is now known as Wurstfest.
Times have changed, but wearing silly hats and ordering a favorite German import beer has remained the same. And this year, as the last sausage on a stick was served up, people had a chance to thank a Veteran.
"You know what, we get together, we have a good time whether you're German, Irish, Mexican, whatever,” said Vietnam Veteran Alfonso Varela. “But you know what, we love it."
A saulte to good times, and to veterans
Varela, who came to Wurstfest proudly donning his Vietnam Veteran cap, said this is what he fought for: to celebrate freely and peacefully.
"We're guys from all walks of life; Chicago, San Antonio, New Jersey,” Varela said.
As veterans gathered around the stage, some members of the band, who are also veterans, played their instruments in what has become the friendly and familiar music that is the soundtrack to Wurstfest.
George House is the Cloverleaf Orchestra’s tuba player, and a veteran.
"We're the only band that's played Wurstfest since the beginning,” said House. Asked how that makes him feel: "Old; but we get free beer tickets so it makes up quite a bit."
There is an uncanny parallel between Veterans Day and this mainstay of the band. House believes it’s a leadership role that a veteran can step into well because veterans are the leaders and heroes that have served the United States honorably.
In other words, this retired Army officer is a part of the fabric and foundation of our freedom much like the tuba is the foundation of this spirited polka band.
"I was a section leader in college of the largest military marching aggregation in the world, the band of the school that beat Alabama (this weekend [Texas A&M])."
On this last weekend of Wurstfest, Wursthalle is filled with joy. The permanent streamers that hang from the ceiling are like the hall's uniform. They make this place feel familiar.
Say 'Sousaphone' three times fast
House knows the history, too, noting how the tubas are an upright concert piece, but have morphed into an instrument built for music on the move.
"Tuba was used before the sousaphone, is what I play, or the bass horn, until John Phillip Sousa invented something where the guys could march with instead of having 34 pounds in front of them they got it on their shoulder."
The sousaphone has the same sound and plays with the same fingering. But it's just a different instrument. Either way, though, the tuba is the backbone of the polka band.
After all, what would this band be without it?
"Well, there's some Godless bass guitars out there that claim to be in polka bands and it's really quite sacrilegious,” House quipped.
No practice makes perfect polka
House says the free beer keeps him coming back but admits the friendships are important, too. They get together and exchange best practices, but they never practice together.
"No, I don't practice at all. Don't practice at all,” said House, but after taking a compliment, he sheepishly responded, “Good is all relative. You got a bad ear. It's just heritage. It's what we feel. I don't think you can play polka music without feeling it. Mexican polka is very similar to German polka; very similar to Czech. Polish polka is a little different. But you got to really feel it."
And it's with feeling he plays every note of every oompah-pah that makes the polka that much more special, even patriotic.
As they raise their mug for a German toast, they thank Veterans for their service and sacrifice – a 'Cheers!' to those who served, to polka music and to freedom.