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European edition, Sunday, September 23, 2007

MUNICH, Germany — Ryan Hiller, his early morning beer buzz becoming a distant memory, waited patiently for round two to start.

Hiller, an Illesheim-based private first class, left early Saturday morning to be in Munich by 9 a.m. As a result, he and his friends managed to find some choice seating near the heart of the action.

“We took the ‘drunk bus,’ that’s why,” Hiller said. “We left at 6 a.m.”

Hiller and friends weren’t the only people waiting for the fun to begin. Dirndl-dressed waitresses stood in long lines in anticipation of the final countdown and the official opening of the first barrel. They were poised to grab armfuls of the liter-sized steins and make the precarious journey to the thirsty crowd.

Then, at noon, Munich Mayor Christian Ude hammered a tap into a barrel and with the traditional shout of “It’s tapped!” the wait was over. Oktoberfest, billed as the largest folk festival in the world, was under way.

Last year, 7 million liters of beer were served up during Oktoberfest’s two-week span. About 6.5 million attended the event.

On Saturday, hordes again flocked to the famed beer halls — the large Festhallen tents — where beer from Munich’s six breweries is served with traditional German dishes. Beer drinkers gorged on wurst, pig knuckles and pretzels.

With all the halls and tents, rides and amusements, the scene can be overwhelming at first.

“We’re just taking it all in,” said William Foster, a sergeant with the Missouri Air National Guard serving at Ramstein Air Base.

Foster and two of his friends wanted to get a seat at one of the beer halls, but those were filled early.

Instead, the group headed off to find a beer garden with the goal of landing a seat in one of the big halls later in the day.

Either way, the group wasn’t too concerned.

“I’m just enjoying the view,” one of them, Sgt. Ian White, said, referring to the young women dressed in eye-catching dirndls.

“Unbelievable,” Airmen 1st Class Christopher Maquilon said.

“This is great. It’s a chance to experience a new culture,” Foster said.

For many servicemembers stationed in Germany, Oktoberfest tops the list of can’t-miss things to do. Between lengthy training missions in the field and a future deployment, this chance couldn’t be passed up, Hiller said.

“This might be the only chance I have to do this,” he said.

The Illesheim soldiers snapped pictures, clinked glasses and downed their first round in no time at all.

“We’re going to be pretty destroyed by the end of the day,” Hiller predicted.

It was 12:15. The first of the kegs had only just been tapped. For Hiller and company, it was time for another round.

“Ein bier,” Sgt. John Mital, holding up an empty glass, said to no one in particular.

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