Tomahawk: Chapter 4: The Vessel

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The path that led to the fisherman’s hut was a maze of high brown grass, reeds, and small dunes.  It was damp and cold, a hard, blustery wind was blowing from the north, from the Czechoslovak Reichs Protectorate. I tried to walk close to the sheltering fringe of reeds, but I was still freezing. My knees were purple. I wished I had. a pair of long pants but Papa says it is not proper for a boy to wear long pants until he becomes a bar mitzvah.

The hut was just around the next bend in the path. This is where I usually worry the most. Everything down here hangs on a thin string. Someone might have found ·the hut and discovered Tomahawk. One tramp looking for a place to sleep could wipe out everything.

At last ! Beyond the sheltering bare tangles of the willows, stood our wooden hut, quiet and serene in the thin light of the December morning. Tad’s alarm signal, the net pole leaning against the porch door, was undisturbed. Everything was alright!

I untied the hinged panel in the reed screen below the pore on the riverside, and stopped to adjust my eyes to the darkness. Good old Tad! He had camouflaged Tomahawk nicely last night. A jumble of planks was piled in a heap in the center of the chamber. A casual intruder would never guess what these planks hid and disguised.

Satisfied that everything was in order, I went back outside and climbed one of the stilts to the narrow porch. I was really eager now. The fever had grabbed me. I quickly opened the padlock to enter the hut, put on a pair of dirty mechanics overalls that Tad had stolen somehow, and then lowered myself through the trap door into the space below the floor. I had to wait to get used to the dim light . Then I began to remove the planks, one by one, from Tad’s artfully confused pile, and stacked them neatly on one side next to the reed mat screen.

Someone stumbling in here would think that our silent raider of the deep was a pretty strange boat. Imagine a flat-bottomed, box-nosed punt lying upside-down on a large deep-keeled rowboat. The two boats fitted together like the two halves of a walnut shell except that the rowboat was longer then the punt by about three meters. The front section of the rowboat that stuck forward had been planked by us to form a deck. A barrel-shaped conning tower fitted with four small glass-covered port holes, my pride and joy, stuck up from the middle of the punt’s hull. The two boats, joined together, were almost completely covered by tightly fitting layers of dark gray canvas. In the weak light, the canvas made Tomahawk appear like looked like a young whale, wrinkled skin and all. Fastened to each side of our strange whale were narrow metal cylinders, the kind used in gas hot water heaters. How we got those is another story that I will tell you later.

I didn’t waste too much time admiring Tomahawk, but it was impossible for me to look at it without feeling impressed with Tad’s and my accomplishment. After all it is not every day that schoolboys build a submarine. .Under one of the water tanks stood cousin Walter’s brown briefcase. I unpacked the blowtorch and the soldering supplies and got to work soldering copper tubing to the metal cylinder. Mr.Wintermann, , who runs the locksmith shop at the agency school, would have been surprised to find out just how careful and diligent I could be if I really wanted to be.

I cannot explain this. Whenever, I do something that requires me to focus on something physical my mind tends to drift. It is as if the monotony of doing a single act is hypnotic allowing my body to do one thing while mind wanders off in another direction. As the blue white flame of the torch melted the flux onto the copper tubing I began to think of when Tad and I first fantasized of building a submarine to travel down the Danube to the delta?

It probably all started in the Saegerer apartment behind their small grocery store. Tad’s father had been fond of books and their front room was lined with shelves crammed with them. Tad’s mother, whose favorite topic of conversation was the faulty character and other flaws of her absent husband, often made cracks about these books. She was a stout red-faced woman, who wore wire-rimmed grandmama glasses, but who was as tough as nails and liked to rule over her coffee and cheese empire. When she spoke about Tad’s fugitive father, her face became pinched and white. “He always had his mind on books, and on politics!” she said. “Instead of caring about his family. If he had listened to me and spent less time with these heathen books, he wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble.” The trouble, Tad explained, was that his father had been an organizer for the Social Democratic party and had to flee to Czechoslovakia in 1934 just one step ahead of the Dolfuss police. I mean that’s what Tad says but I heard some different stories about Alfred Saegerer’s disappearance trick. My Aunt Tina, who is a walking newspaper,  told Mama, that a hat shop assistant, a girl named Inge, also disappeared with Mr. Saegerer. “She was a girl of  easy virtue,” Aunt Tina said, but I couldn’t figure out what she meant by that.

Maria Saegerer had thrown out every book that had anything to do with politics, “Even Red Riding Hoood” Tad had said. But there was lots of good stuff left. Not Kary May, or Max Brand or even Edgar Wallace Brand, or Edgar Wallace, but stories about Greek gods and heroes, Nordic mythology, regular history books, the Travels of Sven  Hedin, and, very important for this story, Huckleberry Finn. That story about a boys trip down the Mississippi to escape injustice and persecution made opened our imagination to a trip down the Danube. Tad had even exclaimed after he had read the book at my urging “Lets make a raft and drift down the Danube.  other, read the Mark Twain book.

But   when I think back about it now, the Mark Twain book didn’t really give us the idea. It gave us encouragement. We had been looking for a way out. Vienna was a dull stone jail and we wanted to leave.  Tad had his reasons and I had mine. Mine  were mostly in brown shirts and liked invoking the name of their leader constantly. Tad’s reasons he kept close to his chest and had not even shared with me his best pal so I knew there was a secret he was afraid anyone.  Drifting down the river  to the delta in a raft was the way to go.

The idea caught fire instantly.  A raft would be easy  to make and we spent many afternoons in Tad’s front room talking about our raft trip and planning  the fishing, and the hunting, and the stealing. At night, in the dark close room, listening to my father snore, I lulled myself to sleep by outfitting the raft  in for the long journey to the Black Sea. I thought of everything: candles, needles, fishing hooks, blankets, and tinned corned beef, a shot gun, even a jar of pickles and, of course, the collected works of Karl May.

I don’t really know how we changed our mind.  Maybe something whispered to us about the power of invisibility as we sat in the dark below the fishing hut and spied on the green river through the slits in the reed screen.  A raft would leave us exposed to hostile eyes along the banks and to the wind-driven waves that would wash over the deck. Tad called many “palavers” in which he did most of the talking. We would sit on the floor in his apartment and he’d recite in beautifully complicated campfire language the dangers of rafting down a long, hostile river. Most of the dangers were just awful-police, gypsies, Serbian irredgulars, and Bulgarian smugglers with connections to the Arabian slave trade. He would always add “we wouldn’t be so bad off because of his uncanny instincts.” Undoubtedly he had inherited these from his Bohemian grandmother.

We never seriously attempted to build a raft for travel. Once we fastened a few planks together with cast iron staples stolen from a construction site. But we never moved more than a few meters out into the river abandoning the trip as soon as it became clear that the raft would not stay afloat. Soon after we abandoned the idea of the raft trip altogether.

A colossal piece of luck aided the birth of Tomahawk. A flood in the early fall washed some lumber on the bank just downstream from the hut. I remember the day vividly. It had been raining hard for a week. Then the sun reappeared,  bright and warm, and summer seed floated in, like the white hair of the fall Old Women waters. Splintered planks with strips of grass wrapped around them floated by. Tad called them anacondas and pythons. Once , he swore he saw the bloated corpse of a murdered man. I marveled at what Tad was able to see (or imagine)  but spent most of the morning  fishing for posts andplanks. I thought they might be useful, but I wasn’t sure for what.

We must have gotten tired of watching the flooded river by early afternoon, because we started playing Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. We were sneaking along the muddy banks, tracking the dread Shoshone, when Tad spotted them. About a hundred meters downstream, were two half submerged boats in a small backwater. He instantly recognized them as the hidden war canoes of a Shoshone raiding party.

“Approach with maximum stealth,” whispered Tad. “No noise at all. Silent as the long night of the panther ! ” I did not know what that meant, but the moment we reached the backwater, we both knew instantly that the river had granted us a real coup. The Shoshone war canoes were a punt and a rowboat stranded side by side. They were half-filled with brown water and mud, but otherwise in very good shape.

 

” Let us spread the buffalo robe and pallaver,” said Tad Shatterhand. As the wise Wnnetou I advised that we better cut the crap this time because if we did not get the two boats to the hut before night fall, someone else would claim them and take them away.

“Long will they sing at the campfires of the Sioux,” panted Tad, as we ran back to the hut to get some cans for bailing.  “They shall sing of our river conquests in the summer of the Old Wives of 1939.” He doesn’t give up easily and  he went  on babbling about war canoes even after we, stripped down to our undershorts and shirts, stood chest-deep in the mud-greasy river trying to bail. Even in the backwater, the current was strong and we had to hold onto the grounded boats to keep from being swept away. I was particularly impressed by the rowboat  because  it had a deep bellied, lapstrake hull, that could easily hold eight men and lots of gear. We managed to get enough water out of the boats so that they were just afloat and then pushed them to the shore. There, squatting in the dank-smelling boats, we finished bailing them dry. Dragging the boats, against the hard current, upstream to the hut, was the next chore. It was ridiculously hard work.  I pulled from shore with a rope, while Tad in the boat, used a pole to keep it from slamming into the sharp stones of the bank. We finally managed to tie them to the porch stilts and then we collapsed, exhausted, on the floor of the hut, gasping  for breath. Wrapped with every rag we could find for warmth, we flopped onto the mattress and sprawled there without moving.

I remember that the sun was just beginning to set and as we lay there in the fading light, we began to argue whether we should try to drag the boats under the hut that evening or wait until the next day. Clearly we had to get our prizes out of  sight as soon as possible. Tad was for finishing the job that evening although I noticed that he didn’t even sit up to tell me that.  But I managed to argue him out of it by telling him that it would take us hours and hours to drag these monsters ten meters uphill. I think that convinced Tad. What had me worried was that we would miss the last streetcar and would have to spend the night down at the Danube.

We had made a sound, practical decision that evening. We anchored and hid the boats as best we could and made our way to the Tram stop. This decision, to hide the boats before we got to the hut was was partly fear and partly tenderness. Mama and Papa would go wild with worry, but they would be afraid to contact the police although that would have been their first inclination in normal times. Tad’s mother, tough as she was, would probably have felt the same way. I thought she knew enough about her adventure-hungry son to realize that contacting the police might have made things worse for him. It came to me while I was soldering, that the decision to go home that night was the last decision of this kind that Tad and I ever made. Our work on Tomahawk changed everything afterward. Neither fear nor tender heartedness about my parents or about Tad’s mother ever got into our way again.

Another chance event helped to create Tomahawk. The day after we found the two boats, we returned to the hut early in the morning. Luckily, Tad had raided his Aunt Hertha’s purse on the previous week. While she was helping his mother make apple strudel in the kitchen, he managed to snatch twenty marks from her bag. She had been a frequent victim of his stealth and she never seemed to notice that anything was  missing.

“A young brave”, said Tad, “knows how to raid his enemies  camp and steal to stay alive.”Who could disagree with that, or fail to admire Tad’s skill as a brave, because if we did not have money for the tram ride, we would have to walk to the Danube at 7 A.M. that morning.   Tad also told me that morning, and I am not sure I know why, that he was a great admirer of the young Spartan who died when a stolen fox, hidden under his tunic, ate the boys intestines. Maybe it was because live foxes were not allowed on Viennese trolleys. The conductor would have a fit.

When we reached the hut, we collected enough round posts to roll the rowboat out of the water. I saw that being done in a movie once with a Viking ship. The Vikings had a crew to help them with their efforts. We had only each other and realized that we would likely need some help. Tad proposed  that we ask Fritz Diller to help, a surly, simple boy who lived in the  same  apartment house as he did. The thought of that idiot blabbing his head off about a Jew boy in a secret hut at the river, made my hair stand  on end. We abandoned the idea of getting others to help us and found ourselves heaving and hoeing on our own. Tad bitterly complained about my decision not to enlist help and in turn I reminded Tad of the  Spartan boys’ silence. It took us two exceedingly long, very hard hours to cradle the boat on its rollers under the hut.

The great inspiration for Tomahawk came after we carried the punt up from the river. It was much shallower and lighter than the row boat and  it only took a few minutes to bring it under the hut. To save space, I proposed that we stack the punt upside down on the upright rowboat. When we dropped it  in position, the punt was exactly as wide as the row boat at the gunwales. The punt resting upside-down  on top of  the  boat formed a cabin-like space which could be entered from the front  of the row boat. Tad saw the shape of the submarine first. He stepped back dramatically, wiped his unruly brown hair from his forehead a few times until he was sure he had my attention, then he spread  his arms wide apart, and trumpeted,  “Hugi, I  have found the way. My uncanny instincts have come to the rescue again. We can get out of Vienna and I can get you away from the Nazis!’

He lowered his voice to a hoarse conspiratorial whisper, “The simple answer has come to me in a flash. We will build a submarine. Look,” he pointed at the two boats joined together like a walnut shell, “we have all it takes to make a perfect river submarine.”

I was sitting on the floor, still panting from moving the boats. Tad’s inspiration did not grab me right away. “Sure,” I said, “of course we will! And before we leave, we’ll torpedo the side wheel steamer that brings all the Strength-through-Joy tourists through here.”

Perhaps Commander Prien inspired Tad. Only a few days before, Commander Prien had slipped through the antisubmarine nets into Scapa Flow and torpedoed the Ark Royal. The recent stories in the newspapers about the successes of German submarines may have started Tad’s visions about the silent journey through the Danube’s deep. But I think Tad’s real inspiration was blue and green, the lurid cover illustrations of a cheap thriller series, The Adventures of Joern Farrow. Joern Farrow was the young son of a German submarine captain, who refused to surrender his boat at the end of World War I and roamed the seas, an outlaw sailor fighting evil wherever it was found near a coast line, despite the nasty Englishers who were still trying to collect hisdad’s boat. My first nasty and sceptical torpedo was fired at Commander Prien. But it was really Joern Farrow who, together with two water-logged wooden boats· that were nearly the same width, begot Tomahawk in the Old Wives’ Summer of 1939.

It would be years before I learned that in the United States the term of Old Wives Summer was Indian Summer.  The perfect time for a Tomahawk.

About 34orion

Winston Churchill once said that if you were not a liberal when you were young you had no heart, and if you were not a conservative when you were older then you had no brain. I know I have both so what does that make me?
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