“Well, we are sitting pretty,” said Tad to me, rubbing his neck, “Just two small things and we are ready to go.” He must have noticed from my frown and quickly tried to butter over it.
“Don’t worry,” he said without looking at me, “You can rely on me. We’ll manage to get them. Word of honour! Give me a little time.”
“Sure Tad,” I said, “my parents are leaving for Poland by the end of this month. And I’ll be stranded in Vienna with a submarine that has no propeller and a conning tower that has no door. If we don’t have waterproof door we cant dive.”
You see, we did manage to build a conning tower for Tomahawk. Naturally it is the first thing you do if you are going to build a submarine. We followed a large steel oil drum that was simply perfect. And, after a lot for trouble, we fitted this drum with three small glass windows. We planned to enter and to leave the boat through the opening in the top for the tower. Unfortunately, that required a cover that could easily be opened and closed that was absolutely waterproof.
It took Tad’s pain in the neck to solve that problem. Tad often suffered from boils. They were painful and they made him irritable. The boils made him feverish and they had to be lanced. His mother would nag at him and say,” You are just like your father, eating all that junk. Id you ate less spicy food, you wouldn’t have so much trouble with your skin. Dr. Schimmel gets fatter every year with the money I pay him for your boils.”
It was in Dr. Schimmel’s surgery that Tad found the solution to the conning tower problem, although it turned out to be a little more complicated than that. He explained to me that just after the doctor had lanced his boil, he was sitting for the dressing to be put on, he noticed a shiny machine in a corner of the room. The door of this machine had a large locking wheel in its centre and that instantly reminded him of a submarine because had seen wheels just like in pictures of submarine hatches.
He asked the nurse what that machine was and this is how Tad found out about the autoclave that Dr. Schimmel used to sterilize his instruments and that’s how he got the idea.
He came to me the next day, smiling mysteriously, and then told me about the autoclave with very considerable flourish.
“There you are!” he said very smugly. “All we have to do is to cut this autoclave machine in half and bolt it inside the conning tower.”
When I asked, Tad tilted his head, wrinkled his forehead, and then guessed that the autoclave weighed 100 kilograms.
Dr. Schimmel’s office was on the third floor of a house located on a busy street corner. It was clear to me that Dr. Schimmel’s machine was beyond the reach of the Kiowa and of Raffles and, unfortunately, beyond the reach of Tad Saegerer and Hugi Flossel. I felt moved to let Tad know.
“All we have to do now,” said I, pulling his cap over his eyes, “is to put on our Siegfried invisibility helmets, attach helium balloons to the autoclave, and carry it downstairs and to the hut. Agreed?”
“Ouch,” said Tad, “you just banged my lanced boil. You got a wicked mouth, you know!”
“Perhaps,” said I, to console him a little, “perhaps , we could run Tomahawk with the tip of the conning tower out of the water. Who would pay much attention to an oil drum floating in the middle of a wide river?”
Tad’s face brightened a little and this encouraged me to continue.
“We could travel at dawn and at dusk and tie up in a hidden place on the bank during the day. The river in Hungary, after the big bend to the south, becomes very wide.” And here I mad the mistake of slipping into a sort of Indian monotone and spreading my arms wide, palms to the ceiling , like a brave with many scalps on his belt who was haranguing the palaver circle.
“The dim light of dawn and dusk is the friend of the warrior. Our enemies’ eyes are too weak to spot us on the wide waters In the papoose light of the morning and in the toothless evening light . It will be easy!”
That was too much even for Tad. I’m sure it wasn’t what I said but rather that I had usurped his role. He now made his voice hard and military.
“Out of the question!”, he snapped at me, “There will be military check points all along the way. We must always be prepared to deal with fast patrol boats . They will have orders to investigate any mysterious floating object . They will fire a burst with their machine gun on anything suspicious and sink us. We’ll never ever reach Brastislava without the capability to dive. Our exploits will have made us famous and they will have orders to hunt us.”
The thought of becoming famous alarmed me.
“I can see” , I said, “we will be stealing an autoclave before the week is up. And before that we will be heisting a small van. You can learn to drive really quickly and I will operate the small crane we will be borrowing.”
“Why are you so sarcastic?” sighed Tad. The question sounded like the beginning of a long conversation but it was never pursued.
Deus ex machina! A favourite joke of Realgymnasium XVII miserable Latin scholars! In each public comfort station in Vienna stood a coin machina that sold rubber contraceptives. Deus was supposed to be the brand name of a condom.
Our Deus ex machine was one of Mama’s cousin, Felix Nussbaum. Felix was by trade an upholster but the Nazi’s had taken over his shop in the summer of 1938. He now eked out a living by moving household belongings of Jews who had been thrown out of their apartments. Occasionally Felix supplemented his income by buying a few pieces of old furniture and selling them at a small profit. Nussbaum’s main tool of trade, had been the upholsterer’s need and waxed thread. Now it was a small four-wheeled card that he pulled through the streets with a cloth sling made of upholsterer’s tape. When Felix had an unusually big job, he sometimes hired me to help him. Deus/Nussbaum with his four-wheeled machine, found Dr.Fuchs who was leaving a thirty years of eye, ear and nose proactive to go to Shanghai via the Trans-Siberian railway. Felix had brought a few pieces of the office furniture that Fuchs had to leave behind. He asked me to help him move it.
I should have known something good was going to happen that day because I saw a chimneysweep walking by just as I was coming out of the house in the morning. And there it was! Amidst the untidy assortment trays and glassed cabinets in Dr.Fuch’s nearly empty apartment , stood an autoclave, the size of beer barrel . Crumpled on a chair in what used to be the waiting room, we found Mrs. Fuchs. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Through the deep sobs she told us that the trip to Shanghai was off for the time being because her husband had been arrested by the Gestapo during the night.
From the tear punctuated conversation between Nussbaum and Mrs. Fuchs, I gathered that Felix was now the owner of all of the remaining medical equipment. It turned out that the autoclave’s gas heater was hopelessly broken. That was lucky because, otherwise , it would have been confiscated by the Nazi functionary who had taken charge of Fuchs’s property, and who had already taken all obviously valuable pieces of equipment.
Nussabaum listened to doctor’s wife with sympathy as long as decorum required. Then he told me that we would take the autoclave and the other equipment to the back room of Muller’s upholstery shop. The owner, an old friend of Felix’ allowed him to use the shop as a temporary storeroom.
We loaded everything on the small hand cart and tied the pieces down and began to drag the squeaking cart through the streets. It took me several blocks before I screwed up enough courage to ask.
“Uncle Felix”, I started. Promoting someone to uncle has a very soothing effect on people. “I have been looking for an autoclave for two months now. Our trade school needs one so that the plumber’s apprentices can practice installing technical equipment.” That worked wonders with Nussbaum who was an old time socialist and sympathetic with the aims of the Jewish Agency School. He fervently believed more Jews should learn crafts. The machine was obviously broken, and without hesitation, he told me that I could have the autoclave if I would cart it away.
And so it was that two days later, Tad and I were pulling a hand cart loaded with canvas covered autoclave, through the early morning streets of Vienna to the inundation area on the banks of the Danube.
I worried ! Suppose the theft of the water heaters or the sails had been reported to the authorities. What would we say if the police stopped us on the way to the hut with the autoclave or on the way back with an empty car? I had a stomach ache the whole way.
We reached the dirt road without incident but now it became clear that we had new problem. The temperature had been above freezing for several days. The wheels of the cart were leaving deep tracks in the muddy surface of the narrow trail.
“Don’t be concerned” said Tad before I got one word out of my mouth. “I know a trick to take care of this.” He took his jack knife from his pants pocket and cut a thick bundle of branches. With these he tried to obscure the tracks by sweeping over them. Winnetou often hid his horse’s hoof prints in this way but id did not work well for our small, heavily loaded cart.
I think I looked back over the trail and mumbled, ”It’s a good thing the Sioux didn’t use small hand carts on their war raids. This challenged Tad to further effort. As soon as we had dragged the autoclave into the hut , he cut more branches and started to back track along the trail, more furiously attacking the wheel marks with his crude besom. Meanwhile I was contemplating the autoclave and trying to decide how to fit it in the conning tower. If the autoclave could be cut to about one third its length, it could be set upside down in the steel drum. Perhaps its walls could be flared to make me some kind of waterproof fit.
A distant noise startled me from my thoughts. I knelt by the reed curtain at the base of the hut to listen. Definitely human voices! I scrabbled up the small overgrown rise on the land side of hut in order to getr a better view. Slowly, I raised my head. Tad was swatting in the roadway, about 200 meters away. He was holding a string that was tied to a large bundle of sticks . Towering over him was an elderly man holding a fishing pole. I could not see exactly what they were doing because of the tangle of willow branches that were in my way. Tad seems to be doing most of the talking. Finally, the old man turned and started to walk briskly from away from the hut and towards the bridge. Still dragging the bundle of sticks, Tad followed him but at a much slower pace.
I watched them until they disappeared behind the bend, all the while trying to collect my thoughts. What happened? What should I do? It seemed wisest to leave the place and wait hidden some place where I could watch the hut to see whether anyone came.
I crawled unto the stone covered embankment and then quickly ran upstream towards the bridge where Tad had been talking to the old man, I cut through the underbrush to a low hummock overgrown with high reeds. From here, I could watch both the road and the clump of willows according the hut.
For a while all was silent. The wind moaned and the water splashed hard against the bank. Then thumping feet approaching rapidly along the road. Tad was running extremely fast towards the hut. I let him pass and waited to see whether anyone was following. No one came. After a few minutes, I started back towards the riverbank and then retraced my steps to the hut. I approached very quietly, using the pigeon – toed walk that Tad had assured me was the way Indians walked when they moved silently.
Tad was standing by the side of the hut, carefully studying the dry underbrush. He was startled when I touched his shoulder and I noticed, for the first time that he squinted when frightened, as if he were expecting a slap in the face.
He recovered his composure immediately. “Hugi, I heard you coming all the way. You should have crouched when you approached me . The way you stood; I could easily have given you the Siamese killer chop in the solar plexus.”
I was too concerned about the encounter with the old man to argue. “For heaven’s sake, what happened to you on the road with that man?”
Tad laughed . “Cream puff filling!”, he said proudly. No problems at all. The old guy was fishing and he saw me with a bundle of sticks weeping the tracks away. But that dodo thought I was collecting firewood. I agreed with him right way. Before we were finished, I had the old man feeling sorry for me because my mother was working me too hard. He even gave me two marks.”
Tad flipped the coin triumphantly up in the air. “It was lucky”, said Hugi,” he did not notice the car tracks.”
“Cart tracks, hell! That old man didn’t even notice he still had goulash stain in his moustache from breakfast!”
And so it appeared to us that a threat to Tomahawk had been averted. “What’s more,” added Tad, “ I no have a brilliant idea for getting the empty cart out of where. We will load it with dry bush and sticks. Its winter. Coal is just rationed. If we meet someone on the way back, they’ll just assume that we have been collecting firewood.”
Delicious is the joy in danger just passed. We whistled and joked all the way across town.
I had a shock in store for me when I reached home. Its stopped me speechless at the kitchen door. There were two large empty spaces in the main room. The worn couch and the washstand with the cracked marble top were gone. They had been sold that morning to a neighbour, a widow, and she had insisted on them moving out right away. What was left were too yellowish rectangles of bare floorboard , which stood in sharp contrast to the remainder of the dull brown floor.
I was born in the big bed in the center of the room and I lived all of my thirteen years in this place. It had always been the same without a single change, except for the time when my infant bed had been sold and a used folding chair had been bought in its place. It upset me to look at the empty places where the familiar furniture had stood.
“Its not me who is abandoning them,” I said to myself as if in consolation, as I lay in bed. “Nothing will remain the same. Even if I did not go down the river, all will be gone. Don’t torture yourself. The change is not of your making, it will take place regardless of what Tad and I do.” Then I heard Papa coughing the dark, and my eyes flooded with stinging tears.