I hear the river whispering about the delta in the hiss of my blow torch.Tad loved to talk about the endless, mysterious plain of reed and water. He sounded more believable about this than about any of his other raves. He called it the great empire of the wild.
“ We will go, ” he said,”to the domain of the sea eagle. The deer and the bear stride through the green canyons of the delta Our friend, the otter, gambols I swear! in the clear swift waters while white clouds of egrets and storks swarm over our heads. In the wilderness of the delta, the whisper of freedom in our ears will be louder than the wind and the Danube waves.”
How did Tad find out so much about that far-off place where the Danube flows into the Black Sea? He spoke so beautifully about the delta as if he were reading from an invisible book. We would sit by the window in the Saegerer apartment during the late afternoon when the light was dying and look out into the gray cobbled street. Tad would tell delta stories and I listened happily. In our imagination, we would glide in slender skiffs through hidden green channels, hunting, fishing, and camping on secret islands. We smoked young eels over elderwood and cut juicy hunks of venison from the flanks of a young buck roasting on a spit. Tad would speak about how the silver morning haze, drifting over the river, brought with it the scent of water roses.
I really thought I could smell them even though I never even seen one. “In one of the books, it said that we will be reading the half-remembered ciphers of our own origins in the untamed landscape of the delta. Weird, but unforgettable!” said Tad. “Agreed” said I, “weird, but unforgettable!”
The marvelous images of the delta that Tad described drew much of their power from contrast with the mean stone wasteland that surrounded us. Vienna may seem like culture, music, and Sachertorte to you, but to us it was a bitter place. Our horizons were hemmed with hard cobblestones littered with dog shit. The narrow streets were scraped by dirty winds. Smoke blackened factory chimneys and gas plants overshadowed walls patched with peeling posters. In workers’ districts such as mine, crowded apartment buildings coughed out hordes of workers every workday morning and every evening the caverns sucked them in again. Even the pathetic patches of green in the parks were fenced and marked with “Keep Off” signs. And the air of the city, the air that I needed to sustain my life and growth was poisoned by the brown Nazi hatred for those of my faith. My fellow inmates hate their prison, I thought, but in their rage they beat us up. I don’t really know who the jailers are whom everybody ought to hate but I would feel much better if they laid off the weakest fellow prisoners, including me!
In the delta, I would be free from all this! The only boundaries in our life would be the sky and the sea. When Tad spoke of the delta, he made it sound as if it were the original garden of Eden. Not the sating lushness of the biblical paradise, but instead he described a wonderful place, a raw, pulsing cradle of natural life, where muscles, sinews, and wild glands had the meaning of their creation.
After Tad had the inspiration about the submarine we began to talk about how to build one. At first it was sort of empty talk. Al1 the things you could do with a submarine. Tricks, surprises, that sort of thing. We worried about waterproofing but that about as technical as we got. Then it slowly came to me that I did not know how a submarine worked. When I told this to Tad, he really was impatient with me. He disliked being bothered with such small detail. For him our slick boat was all but done, all that was left was moving down the river.
But, to Tad’s annoyance, I decided that I needed to read books about submarines. That posed a little problem because I, as a Jew, was forbidden to use public libraries. When they made the library rule about the time of the Krystalnachtpogrom, the newspapers Der Stuermer had said that it was unsanitary and un German to read books that Jews had stained with their filthy fingers. The consequence of the filty finger law was kind of funny because now I made Tad go. Tad grumbled a lot about my determination to find out how submarines worked, but I finally turned him into a regular library mule and he brought bundles of thick engineering books back to me. Reading these books was an amazing experience because I had never read anything like this in my life. I mean we read a lot but we concentrated on high adventure. The factual books we read were mainly personal recollections of travelers and explorers and perhaps books on natural history. Like I was the First European to Traverse the Valley of the Moon Maidens or Two Years at the Court of the Imam of the Golden Sword or maybe Zorka, King of the Yukon Wolf Packs. Books about physics, mechanics, and naval architecture? School was taking its revenge on me. How I suffered at first! But I slowly got to like them, even though there was a lot of stuff I could not fully figure out. The books were thick and heavy. I would build little book castles around me, stacks that would be six, seven books high, and read with fascination about Fulton’s submarine, Brun’s plongeur, and Holland’s submersible vessel. I particularly liked Bushnell’s submarine of the American War of Independence. It was described in one of my books as resembling two tortoise shells of equal size joined together. What really appealed to me, because I’m no fool, was that the cutaway picture of Bushnell’s boat looked kind of primitive. It looked like we might be able to handle building something like that by ourselves.
The ship that finally provided the model for Tomahawk was Goubet ‘s two-man torpedo boat. It was about the right size. Five and a half meters long, about two meters high, and about one and a half meters wide. But the size, and the wood, and the nails was the easy part. The main problem, the problem that now kept me going through these stacks of very hard books like a hungry (and dusty) ferret, was how to make Tomahawk, dive and rise again, how to propel it, steer it, and how to keep the water out, in other words how to make it behave like a submarine.
“Isn’t that neat? ” I asked, holding a sketch under Tad’s nose. “I drew it all in perspective. Here are the dive tanks fastened to the side of the boat. We have a valve inside and when we open it, water goes into the tank and we dive. Then if we want to surface, we release the air line, and let it float up- – we can make that out of a garden hose with cork floats tied to the intake. I didn’t get the perspective quite right on the air line but you can imagine how that would go. And this part here is a pump. We sit on a bench and work these bicycle pedals. The air gets sucked in on the surface, comes down this air hose, and forces the water out of this tank. This is how we make the boat come back up again after a dive.”
Tad wrinkled his nose and pushed the sketch aside. In Joern Farrow’s submarine, they blew the water out with compressed air.”
“Well, that’s what we’ll be doing.·”
“No, you don’t understand. They used real compressed air out of a tank. You know?” I couldn’t do anything except sigh. I knew. There was sometimes a sliver of truth hidden in Tad’s wrongheadedness, but it usually was hard to find.
Eventually, Tad conceded that we needed to find dive tanks and air lines and tubes and valves. He actually began to be quite pleased with the thought.
“I know where we can get a lot of plumbing ! ” he cooed, and he winked at me as if he owned the town.
Scattered throughout the vast inundation area and around the nearby Danube backwaters were hundreds of clubhouses built on stilts. They were the social centers for the colonies of tents that sprouted around them during the summer season. The houses were full of plumbing. Now, in late October, the inundation area was deserted. Once or twice a day, a pair of policemen, usually on bicycles, patrolled the silent footpaths and from time to time a hardy fishermen wandered through. Otherwise the empty silence was broken only by the wind rustling in the dry brown grass. burglars.
It was an ideal setting for apprentice burglars.
Our approaches were flawless from the start. Tad organized everything. Years of practice in stalking the campfires of the Kiowa and Shoshone paid off. We slipped through the high grass with very few sounds and without much revealing ourselves to the eyes of watchers, if there had been any. The locks of the clubhouses would have been easy to force with a crowbar. But, Tad insisted, that was entirely too crude. Raffles or Tom Shark, the great penny paperback detective, would never lower themselves to do anything so simple. I wasn’t too sure about that, but it did make pretty good sense not to leave obvious signs of a break-in. It was dangerous to have our ventures noticed before we had gotten all the supplies we needed. We tried three times without luck to jimmy windows open. That was useful. I developed courage and it convinced me that Tad was right. I was going to be Raffles and so I made several picks in school out of strips flat spring stall.
Our first successful entry was during a driving rainstorm on a Saturday afternoon. The stilted house contained nothing we wanted except for six flashlight batteries that had been left behind in a drawer. Tad was quick to point out what cunning braves we were. Flashlight batteries were tightly rationed.
We broke into four more house that afternoon. In the last of these, our luck finally changed. This house, unlike the others had running eater , drawn from a holding tank on the roof. The men’s and women’s dressing rooms was each equipped with a shower stall. Two enameled heating tanks supplied hot water. The two cylinders , which were identical and just the right size to turn Tomahawk into a drive boat, were just what we had been looking for.
Tad immediately knelt down and tapped at the brackets that held the tanks to the wall. I walked to the window. A steady rain was soaking the brown ground. “Forget it,” I said. “If we took those things now and dragged them through the mud we’ leave a trail that even a blind Flatfoot Indian could follow.” “We’ll wait until tomorrow,” he said and shrugged his shoulders.
It rained for five days. just like Noah’s big water in the Bible, that the Germans like to call the Sin Flood. The inundation area turned to mud. Impatiently, we decided to explore further despite the drizzle that was falling steadily from the fray skies. We walked single file, like an Indian raiding party, leaving only one set of water filled footprints behind. About two hundred meters from the fisherman’s hut, our cunning approach pays off . A lone A-frame shack stood above the reeds. It looked in far better shape than some of the other huts we had seen with double doors with a white sign above proclaiming für Mitglieder”, members only. We ignored the sign and my pick worked like magic. I think inside the shack were two mangy- looking sofas and several chairs with scarred , peeling skins. Nothing worthwhile until we saw a long wooden locker. On seeing this Tad’s face lights up again. Grinning, he pulled out a small crowbar, from under his shirt. He now pried with great flourish and a few grunts the padlock from the locker door.
“Look at that”, he crackled , “this little piece of iron works even faster than your pick. We really struck pay dirt.”
Wiping away some cobwebs he peered into the box and exclaimed “Shit. The only thing in here are three shabby Kapok life vests a couple of old canvas sails.”
I was about to tell Tad that he was a diddle-headed. What kind of break in with this when all we walked away from it was a giant bowl of nothing when inspiration struck. There was something about the way the canvas lay there. I kneeled own on top of it and tugged at the spilled pile of sails and stroked the rough cloth with my hands. My face suddenly felt as hot as if I had a fever. It all came together for me at once. Even now, I keep thinking that I heard a pop in my ear when I saw the answer.
“Holy Shit , Tad!”, I said , “We got it! We made it ! I knew this would be a lucky day because I stepped on dog shit this morning ! Don’t you see what this means ? The canvas ! The canvas ! We found a waterproof skin from Tomahawk!”And so at the last light of that day, we dragged the heavy sails along the stone river apron to our hat. We had found a skin for Tomahawk.
Originally I thought that we could water proof the boat with pitch . I had read that Irish sailors in olden times caulked their boats with that stuff. The woods in Austria ooze pitch . The foresters cut gutters into the bark of pine trees and then nail little pails at the bottom to catch the drippings. The stuff smells real good but it’s a mess when you get it in you your hair, We figured it would be easy to waltz off with these pails but then we gave up the idea. We needed a lot of pitch. How would we collect all these pails? Then I thought of road tar.
“All we have to do now , is to wrap layers of canvas around the boat and cover each layer with tar . We could give it three or four layers. That ought to keep the river out!”
“Agreed!” said Tad. “Excellent ! Good idea!” He got that look in his eye. They one where you know that before too long there would be a bit of mischief afoot. “You know he added “There are a couple of drums of tar at the road construction site near the tram stop at the Reichsbruecke. That is so close, we could just roll them down hill.”
I remembered coming down to the hut two days later and finding five drums of tar neatly staked in one corner. Tad , the cunning brave had scored again. I built a small fire under the porch of the hut , grateful for the continuing rains because it hid the smoke. A stone tripod supported a drum of tar over the fire. When Tad arrived we painted the tar on the outside of the joined boats and on the decked forward section. Then we fitted wide strips of the sail canvas on the wood and patted them down with our hands. The strips lapped over each other. It worked perfectly . The pliant canvas fitted itself beautifully to the shape of the boat. When we had covered it entirely, we repeated the procedure two more times until we had made a thick skin for Tomahawk out of three layers of tar and canvas. Despite the tar, the original patterns of the striped sails were still faintly visible. Tad thought that Tomahawk now looked like a striped whale.
“I think , “ said Tad , “itself a cross between a blue and white whale , with a little bit of gray whale thrown in.”
I remember patting the still warm sides of our animal with satisfaction and asking him what he thought the Nueremberg laws would have to say about that mixture , this Rassenschande , this shameful miscegenation of the deep.
The autumn rains stopped , but the loam of the river plain drained poorly. Mud was everywhere . It still did not seem safe to raid the house that held the needed dive tanks and the delay tried our patience. Finally, shortly after St.Jude Day ( I remembered because even I, knew he was the patron of lost causes) in late October the temperatures fell sharply below freezing during the night. That brought Tad ,early the next morning to our apartment door. Finally, a break we could move the tanks without being mired in the mud. But as we were dashing down the stairs. Tad grabbed my arm and stopped me. “Maybe we better wait another day to make sure the cart won’t break through”. We don’t know how hard the frozen crust of the mud will be.”
Tad smiled mysteriously . “Yes , I borrowed my Aunt Hertha’s pull car and brought it to the hut the day before yesterday. Aunt Hertha doesn’t know it yet, but we won’t need it long.”
I was usually the one that slowed us down, not Tad , but that morning I didn’t want to hear of than another wait in getting things going. The long delay that the rain had forced on us had made me edgy.
“Tomorrow will be either colder or warmer than today,” I said , feeling a little uncomfortable in the unaccustomed role of the instigator. “If its colder tomorrow, we will be worse off than we are now . I am for going down there today and trying. “
Tad hesitated for only a a second , startled by my unusual reversal. Then he grabbed me by the elbow.
“Let’s go, Raffles” he said. And we were underway.
No Sioux hunter nor any Kiowa brave testing his prowess had ever crept through the prairie with an arm-long plumber’s wrench stuck in his belt. Tad insisted the stealthy approach was necessary but even he found it rough going. The Kiowa brave had never crawled sideways before but that is what he ha to do because he was carrying a hacksaw, a screwdriver , a crowbar , and a very large ball of knotted rope under his shirt. I was right behind him and I heard him mutter about the sons of dogs and how he would nail their tongues on his teepee pole. I had tried to tell him a couple of times that we ought to just quietly walk up to the club house but he didn’t listen.
“Who ever heard of Indians just walking into an enemy camp when they were stealing horses , its just not done .” Tad hissed at me, as contemptuous as if I had asked him to beg an Apache for mercy.
But I was too impatient, and I finally got up and walked past crawling Tad t the door of the clubhouse. “These are water tanks, “ I said ,”they don’t neigh,” and I began to work on the lock. Soon we were standing in the shower room admiring its plumbing. The water tanks had been drained at the end of the summer and we were able to disconnect them quickly. The two cylinders were lighter than I had expected and we carried them to the cart without any difficulty.
Working on Tomahawk in the quiet afternoon , with only the hiss of the blow torch to keep me company , I smiled to myself as I remembered the frenzy that followed. We were resting by the cart in the high grass outside the hut . There seemed to be no other human being besides Tad and me on the whole wide river plain. The houses of Vienna swam in haze far away across the Danube. We sniffed the moist wind from the river like animals. Then we looked at each other and giggled. A high, joyous frenzy swept over us simultaneously. We ran back to the clubhouse, bucking like young goat. Without a word to each other we attacked the copper pipes that carried water from the roof tank to the heating units, and tore at the weave of horizontal pipes that connected showers, sinks, and toilets. What didn’t yield easily to the plumber’s wrench, we pried out with crowbars or cut with the saw.
The noises of tearing metal fed our frenzy. Tad, who had insisted that he wear gloves because the gentleman jewel thief Raffles always wore them for his Monte Carlo heists , now threw his to the floor. Entering the clubhouse, he had substituted a Riviera of destruction swept the Riviera scene and with it caution from his mind. The time is NOW!
“This is absolutely ripping” he said , using the English word and proving that detective storied and Realgymnasium language lessons sometimes can lend each other a helping hand. “The water lilies of their club have a great surprise in store. I almost wish I could see their faces when they open their doors in May.” I was kneeling on the floor next to him, tying bundles of pipe together, but I hardly paid attention to Tad’s malice . In my imagination I was already trying various spatial responsibilities for the shiny pipe sections on the floor in front of me. Just like a big copper erector set , I thought , and I could almost hear the rush of frothing green river water in the maze of pipes that I was assembling in my mind.
The song of the delta is beautiful , To fully appreciate it , one hast to have an ear for the obligato of resignation(Thank you , Professor Rohacek, for those nice music classes) that quivers in small apartments. To be fully charmed by dreams of the delta you have smelled the rusty stink of a crushed bedbug on your pillow. I press my nose against the smug glass of the window. Beyond are other words that I cannot reach. I feel lonely and lost, circumcised and helpless, rejected , tossed about in the brown hurricane of hatred. To one like me the song of green waves is clean and sweet.
The blow torch hissed. It was getting dark outside but I kept working , below the dive tanks , in the flickering blue haze of the torch flame. Tad was supposed to come down with a pump that he found in his uncle’s mechanics shop in Doebling. It was time to leave.
Walking along the deserted dirt road to the bridge, I remembered the creased brown post card that Papa had shown me on the way to the Inner City this morning and my heart grew heavy with apprehension.