My face was resting on my hand as I awoke and the sharp metallic smell of solder flux on my fingers stung my nose. My bed, tucked into the corner of our flat that was our “kitchen”, felt lumpy. I stretched and squinted at the gray wall next to my head. Perhaps I ought to skip school today. What a pleasant thought! Go down to the hut again. Out into the open beside the river. Away from this gloomy apartment house, away from the smell of old clothes and worry and where hope still resided. There was a loot to do on tomahawk’s diving pipes. The thought of our boat waiting for us done at the river sent a rush of prickly warmth to my legs. Then I remembered last night. Papa’s shy, proud smile. Poland ! We ere going to Poland. Everything crumpled within. What was I to do?
My body felt weak all over and I sank back in the bed, rolled over onto my side, and pulled the blanket over my head . For years I had a scary dream. It was nearly the same. It was autumn and my parents and I would be walking through a deep forest. The leaves were falling and covering the ground with somber browns and pale yellows. We would reach fork in the path, and Mama and Papa, hand in hand, would turn down one side while I had to walk the other. As I continued down my path, my parents would walked down theirs. The woods were dense and after a few steps I could no longer see them but could hear their feet shuffling through the dry dead leaves that lined the path. And then nothing as they faded from my hearing. I would awaken in a start, sweaty and tingling with terror.
Now it seemed my dream was becoming real. I felt my forehead now. It was cold and wet.
If I could only talk to Tad. But he was in school. Aryans still went to school regularly, Tad had been complaining. I feel humiliated because they are not letting me attend the Realgymnasium but he complains because he has to go. Uncle Leo once told me, “You can lie naked in a snowdrift and someone will envy you.” That was the day after Uncle Leo’s unemployment pay ran out and his family was being fed by relatives.
I tried to visualize Tad sitting in one of the worn oaken chairs at the old Realgymnasium. Right now, he was probably listening to that pot-bellied Nazi prig, Professor Braunshcweig, lecturing about the ablative absolute. I thought I have to talk to Tad. We need to move far more quickly than we had planned.
Mama surprised me by how readily she agreed to having me stay home from school. I was just beginning to describe my stomachache, when she said yes. Without looking back at me, she left the room. Not like her at all.
I moped about the house all morning, waiting for school to close, sitting at the window, shutting out the apartment behind me, and trying to keep out of my parents’ way, bending over strips of scrap metal that I was filing into brackets from Tomahawk which I had told Papa was a project for school. When the Mt. Cavalry church bull chimed two, I was waiting in the small park that face the Realgymnasium. From my place on a bench, partially hidden by a large, barren brush, I had a clear view of the main gate of the school across the road. It seemed at first that flakes of mica in the cobblestones were glistening in the weak afternoon sun but then I realized, with sinking heart, that my eyes were filling with tears. Damn it ! It was all so confusing, and I didn’t wasn’t to cry. Going with my parents was the simplest thing to do. Maybe I should just pack up and go quietly with them. It would give me away from this dreary, vexing town. Away from a disaster. It was so appealingly neat and orderly. Mama and Papa and me going together to a new beginning somewhere else. All was arranged.
But there was Tad and Tomahawk! The dream of the green waters and to be free of this bloody war. The Danube carrying us to the delta and to the sea. We would seek new freedom – alone, exciting and unrestrained. Leaving Mama and Papa was hard but Poland was, in my mind, the land of nighmares with wolves always biting your heals. Mama and Papa want to be safe. To be free. All that could be mended later when the war was over, and the Allies had won.
The problem was so big and so obvious. I understood it so clearly it hurt. Shelter! Tomahawk was not ready yet. What would become of me alone in Vienna to launch Tomahawk?
Should I tell my parents about our plan? Perhaps I could stay with a relative. No, this could never, never work. I could see Papa’s face flushing with anger .Papa would not see the reason. We would have a disastrous row and I would end up going to Poland.
From the interior of the school came the muffled buzz of the final class bell. Two fifteen ! I hope Tad is alone when he comes through the gate and not with that shaven-headed Hitler youth oaf Walter Heider. I could always step back behind the bush and then follow at a distance until he was alone. I felt edgy and did not want complications.
The school gates burst open and a swarm of shouting boys spilled into the street. I hoped he would see the stick figure wolfs paw with a line through the first claw I had scrawled on the lamppost outside the gate of the school. It was a symbol we had created to leave messages for each other. It meant I (paw one) was looking for him. Tad was taller than most of his group and I picked out of his bobbing dark shock of hair quickly. He separated form the crowd and strode purposefully to the park. He had seen it! He was alone. When I gave him our special owl whistle, his face lit up and quickly move towards me.
“Well” said Tad, as we walked out of the park together, “what news have you in the matter of Tomahawk? I tried to come down yesterday but Uncle Franz came home on leave from the army and I had to go to his apartment right after school. It was fantastic. He brought me a Polish cavalry hat. Took it right off a man he killed. The pole was trying to attack his tank. Uncle Franz is a tanker , you know. Saw lots of action. He was awarded the Iron Cross, second class. I held it right in my hand.”
Here I was ready to tell Tad about my problems, but this shut me up. It was as if Tad’s story had tightened a rope around my neck. I pressed my lips together and walked silently beside him. That same puzzling, two-sided feeling was throttling me. I hated anything that bore the loathsome swastika, including the German Army. Yet here I walk at Tad’s side and listen to his stupid stories about Uncle Franz, the tanker in the death-black uniform. With all my troubles, I want to hear about their better adventures. What are they to mw? They think I am a rotten Jew.
It upset me that I was such an ass but after a while I regained my composure. I touched Tad’s arm to stop him from talking. “Listen Tad, I’m in real trouble. My old man got a job cleaning war rubble in Poland. We are all supposed to go with him. What in the world am I going to do ? They are not going to let me stay here while we get Tomahawk ready.”
“Thunderation”, Tad’s face became very serious, “this calls for an immediate palaver. Our opponents shall know our cunning to their regret.”
But I knew it was no use telling Tad to be serious. He was in a playful mood and wanted to pretend as if we had been attacked by Kiowa while planning in the sandbox in the park. Let him talk! He will soon grow tired of being Old Shatterhand, and we will have a proper conversation. I was in no mood for frivolity. This game had suddenly become very serious.
For two blocks, Tad recapitulated several of Old Shatterhand’s major speeches. He irritated me intensely, but despite of this I began to listen with increasing admiration. Tad Saegerer was actually better than Karl May.
Suddenly Tad stopped and turned to look at me fully. A triumphant grin spread over his face.
“I have it ! The perfect solution, Hugi! I will put you up in my uncle’s cottage in the Lobau. Nobody goes there in the winter and Aunt Hertha usually doesn’t open the house until the first of May. This is perfect. Its near Tomahawk , no more than a couple of kilometers and its safe. Of course, its up to you. But if I were you I would stay behind Vienna. Your parents might get angry but they will get over it after a while. You got to stay. I’ll hide you at the cottage.”
I remembered the garden house Tad was talking about. It was in a group of similar toy houses, each with a tiny garden. People like trolley conductors and storekeepers cultivated stamp-sized plots of cucumbers there and espaliered miniature pear trees along the walks. Small Viennese people worked very hard all summer to keep these Lilliputian villas in beautiful shape. They would certainly be more comfortable tan the fisherman’s hut. It was true. No one would look for him there. Neither police nor hobbos were likely to barge into one of these frilly garden houses.
“And by May,” added Tad triumphantly, “we will be in Rumania.”
“Yes,” I said , “eating strawberries.”
“You have a nasty tongue.”
“Sure a nasty tongue! How will I get anything to eat in your Aunt Hertha’s dwarf cottage?”
We walked for a whole block through the narrow street without saying one word. Our footsteps rang loud on the cobblestones and the gray silent houses stared at us malevolently.
“I wouldn’t have any food ration stamps if my parents went to Poland without me. Even if I had ration stamps, where could I buy food in the deserted Lobau in the winter? And what would I buy food with? Sell your aunt’s and uncle’s cottage furniture? I will starve to death in that place.”
Tad waved me to a stop and smiled slyly.
“No problem, no problem,” he said. “You can rely on me. I will keep you supplied. You won’t be hungry, leave it to me. The great hunter of the plains had spoken.
“There will be smoked venison and buffalo steak. And roasted bear paw with dried blueberries. When spring comes and the ice in the river breaks, you be as fat as the bull elk in the oak forest.”
“Yeah,” said I “and my head, antler and all, will be mounted on the Gauleiter Burekel’s office wall.”
The smell of winter was in the air. As we wandered through the twilight streets, mysteriously, with each step, it all fell into place. Tad found words to reassure me and I gathered them close to my heart.
When we stopped in front of Tad’s grocery shop , it was almost dark. People were beginning to pull down their black-out shades and the lamps in a thousand apartments were being lit. we shook hands. My mind was made up. Tad was right. I will try to make it alone. The garden cottage was safe and Tad would probably be able to take care of me. By spring everything would be ready and we would start our journey down the river.
A sharp wind from the Northwind swept fiercely down the long street. I shivered. If it was this cold in October the winter was going to be bitter. I pulled my jacket tight around my neck and started home.