I dreamt that I was back at Ft. Sill. We were doing a “close over” drill with 105mm howitzers and I was commanding a battery of three that kept firing in synchronized order. There would be the “boom” of the gun firing followed on its heels by the artillery piece next to it and so on. Interspersed between the rounds firing were the muffled “thumps” of the ordinance landing nearby. I remember thinking that this exercise was very loud and the next time I needed to remember to bring more cotton to stuff in my ears when I woke up.
There was someone banging on my door with a steady knock of the back of a fist. Thump. Thump. Thump. Just like an artillery barrage. I reached over and grabbed my watch from the table next to my bed. 3:30 AM. Who the fuck would be knocking on my door at this hour? I called out “Whose there?”
An urgent whisper responded. “It’s Granville. Open the fucking door.”
I hustled the door, unlocking it, open the door just a crack to make sure it was the Colonel. It was him. But he was not alone. Standing next to him, looking furtively up and down the hallway was a medium sized man, in a worn brown tweed suit, wearing rimless glasses and a dark Fedora he had pulled down over the forehead.
I opened the door wider and both men darted in. Shutting the door behind them I tried to come up with a smart retort in response to the Colonel busting into my room in the middle of the night but underlying fatigue in addition to being awakened in the middle of the night robbed me of any witticism I might have had and simply said “Good morning, Colonel.”
I guess by hotel room standards my room was not large. Just enough room for two twin beds nestled closely together, a small writing desk and a settee opposite the beds. The colonel made himself at home by laying claim to the small couch while my still unintroduced visitor deposited himself in the desk chair.
“Glad you don’t sleep in the nude, Flossel.” Referring to the Army boxers and t-shirts I had been sleeping in. “Put on some pants.”
I lifted the corner of the mattress on the bed in which I was not slept and pulled out my pants. Max, who dressed better than anyone I knew, had given me this tip before I had left for Syracuse. He had said “If you don’t know when you will be able to get you pants pressed, lay them between the mattress and box spring. It will keep you seems sharp.” Max had told me over the years a lot of nutty things but this tip actually worked and saved me money on pressing clothes when I had precious little of either.
Pants on I turned to Granville and he said “Lieutenant Floessel, let me introduce to you Dr. Heinz Pichler. You will be happy to know that he had decided to join our merry little band. However, he was a nervous to return to the places where he was sleeping as he felt the Russians were keeping tabs on him there. Considering his predicament, I volunteered your extra bed until we can arrange for his transportation. That isn’t a problem is it?”
What was I supposed to say? “No, Colonel of course not.” I nodded at Pichler and said “Herr Dr.”
He responded with a condescending expression, as if bunking with a Lieutenant was a step down in social order and replied in unaccented English “Lieutenant.”
His accent or lack thereof surprised me but I tried not to let it show but madea mentalnote to ask the colonel about it at some point. Granville continued. “Good. Great. Then I am going to get some shut eye. Let me have a quick word with you out in the hallway.”
Once we were in the hallway. The Colonel leaned in close to me and whispered “Don’t trust this sonofabitch for one second. He kept me waiting for over an hour for our meeting. When he finally did meet, he was condescending and rude making it perfectly clear that our offer was not his only option and that if we did not agree with his demands then he was perfectly willing to walk away. I was tempted to let him walk and would have except for orders.”
“If it is any consolation, I am pretty sure he was not lying to you. At least about having multiple options. During our travels today we found out that he had contacted some folks Paul knew to get forged papers. The guy we talked to said he would not do it because he thought Pichler was “too hot.” But Paul’s contact said there were many others who would have agreed to help him.”
Granville considered this for a second and said “Don’t trust him. We can’t let him out of our site until we figure out a way to get him to Salzburg. It means eyes on 24/7. Which means you are done with sleep tonight. Let him sleep but you need to stay up, so he does pull a dodge on us. Got it.”
“How was the rest of your day? Successful?”
“Yes….” I was about to tell him that we had located Uncle Anton he cut me off saying “Sorry. Can it. I got to hit the rack. I am . Give me a full report in the morning at Breakfast. 0800. I will send Cookie to relieve you.” And with that he walked off down the hall.
Returning to the room, I found Pichler sitting at the desk the telephone at his ear. I quickly crossed the room and depressing the switch hook said in German “I am sorry Dr. There are no phone calls allowed.”
He looked at me with a mild look of astonishment on his face and said, “You are Viennese?”
“I was born here.”
“May I ask how old you are?”
“No. And why don’t you move over to the settee. I think you would be more comfortable over there.” He, with a look of indignation, and distain, reluctantly got up and moved over to the small couch. As he did so, I unscrewed the mouthpiece to the telephone and removed the microphone from inside and placed it in my pocket. Pichler chuckled when he saw what I was doing. “I will not give you any trouble, Lieutenant Floessel. I am here because I want to work with you Americans.”
“I am sure you do Dr. But in that case us taking a few precautions so that you are not confronted with temptation should not be a problem for you. That way we can all relax. Yes?”
“Very good.” Then looking around the room he said “I see that you have taken the bed nearest the window. Would you mind letting me have that bed because I sleep better when I have a little fresh air.”
I knew Pichler was playing games with me. He was trying to intimidate, to be the alpha dog, as he no doubt was in his research lab. Perhaps he thought it would be easy considering my age and obvious inexperience. But I have never liked being pushed around or manipulated. Being a patsy got you beat up in the 16th district. I especially disliked being manipulated by a Nazi who according to Paul was likely involved in the murders of my grandmother, Aunts and Uncles. If not directly, indirectly. He knew. Trying to keep the anger out of my voice and to remember what I learned about command voice I said “Herr Dr perhaps you are under a misunderstanding that you are a guest of the American Army. You are not. You are here by the good graces of our Government. Or perhaps you think that your former position offers you some special privileges with me. It does not. In fact, just the opposite. You are a Nazi scumbag who’s playing the system while this city and most cities in Europe are shattered because of your arrogance and bullshit beliefs. Or maybe you think you can play with me because of my age. Let me disabuse of that notion. I am an officer in the American Army. You are in my custody. You will do what I say, when I say it or there will be measures taken so that you comply. Are we clear?”
“Lieutenant whatever you say. I was really just asking for a favor.”
“Dr., with all due respect. Bullshit. But let’s move on. You can take the bed on that has not been slept in. If you do not have any toiletry articles will try to get you supplied in the morning. In the meantime, you can use my toothpaste on your finger if you like and if you feel like taking a shower, I think there are some fresh towels under the sink. Any other questions.”
“Good. I am glad that we understand each other.
I turned around and pulled out some writing paper from the desk drawer and began writing a note to my friend Eduard in England. I knew that I could never mail it. I was not supposed to be here. I was supposed to be Oklahoma learning how to fire cannons and had been told in no uncertain terms that is where people needed to believe I was. But I had four hours to kill before Cookie relieved me and I needed to do something to stay awake. I figured writing Eddie about all that I experienced was a good way of solidifying the details of the last few days in my memory. Who knows someday I may even be able to tell my children?
I heard Pichler get into bed and for a few moments the room was silent before I realized that I need not have worried about falling asleep. My guest snored. Not your run of the mill snore I had encountered at college or in the barracks. Not the put the pillow over your head and it is not so bad snores that Papa managed to generate especially after drinking with his friends. No. Pichler’s snores were stentorian. They were bass and full of power. The type of snores that they make fun of in Bugs Bunny cartoons. They were so loud there were times where I thought the window frames rattle.
Cookie showed up on time at 8:00am. By that point I had showered leaving the door open to keep an eye on Pichler whose snoring was uninterrupted by morning ministrations. Instead letting the Sgt into the room I stepped out into the hallway and handed Cookie the microphone from the telephone.
“It is the microphone from the telephone. When I was talking to Granville in the hall last night he tried to make a phone call so I figured I would take it for safe keeping.”
“What is he like?”
“More than a little full of himself. He tried to play some mind games with me last night. You know the type. He thinks he should be in some fancy suite and be waited on hand and foot. He was a little put out to be sharing a room with a lowly Lieutenant whose whole race he tried to kill.”
“I set him straight. I am sure he will complain to Granville when he gets a chance, but the Colonel will back my play.”
“Speaking of which he told me he wanted to meet you around the corner at Café Mozart. He wants to talk and thinks we are less likely to be overheard there.”
Café Mozart was only a short walk around the corner from the Hotel but it gave me time to wonder about how Pichler would react to Cookie. He felt slighted to be sharing a room with a mere Lieutenant, how was he going to feel about being guarded by a noncommissioned officer. I felt sure the Sgt had enough experience to bring our “guest” in line especially considering as he was relying on us to be his ticket out of Vienna and not becoming a permanent guest of the Soviets.
The Café Mozart reminded me of what I imagined an Imperial Hunting Lodge would have looked like during the time of Emperor Franz Josef. Twenty foot ceilings, illuminated by crystal chandeliers on long tethers, walls painted in warm yellows and accented with white, dark wood fixtures with mirrors and seating areas upholstered in rich maroon fabric with a green leaf pattern. The colonel was sitting at a small table with a starched white tablecloth in a far corner of the restaurant. There was a silver coffee pot at the table and a cigarette was burning in the ash tray. He had both elbows on the table and was leaning over his cup of coffee making me believe that he had even less sleep the night before than me.
“Good morning Colonel.”
He looked up. His eyes were blood shots and there were the beginning of dark circles underneath his eyes “Floessel, good morning. Have a seat. Pour yourself a cup of coffee. Tell me how it went last night.”
He shook his head. “I am afraid that has been the standard operating procedure with most of the German muckity mucks we have captured. They all act as if their former rank or position mean some to us. We don’t care if you had the Nazi’s Golden Badge or were a fucking Field Marshall. We kicked your ass. You our prisoner and you will take what will give you.”
Taking a gulp of his coffee “But there smart. It is like they all took a course on how to act when captured. They know we are not going to throw them in some gulag or torture them like the Russians. They know we have to follow the Geneva convention because if we don’t, we will not hold any moral authority over them. They can say “See you are just like us.”
“They also know that we need things from them. With some of the Generals I have taken into custody. They allude to the fact that have secret stashes of documents or war prizes or both and if we treat them well and they feel inspired that they might tell us where these things are.”
“Sadly, the scientist are the worst. You know about the V2 rockets?”
“Yeah, the ones the German starting tossing at London at the end of the War.”
“Right. Well, the person that ran that program was a guy by the name of Wernher Von Braun. Intelligence had a huge dossier on this guy. He was not only a major in the SS but personal friends with Himmler. When we started bombing his rocket factories he had them moved underground and used slave labor from the concentration camps to build them. We knew that thousands died because of rockets and even more died building them. Yet, he was on the top of our capture “blacklist.” We were to take him to custody and treat him right. We finally found hm near the end of the war and promptly installed him and a bunch of their scientists in there own villa. These guys who had murdered so many we were being sent to a hotel with servants. It was FUBAR. Right after he was captured I was ordered to due the initial interrogation with him. It did not go far. He objected to my rank. He thought he should be interviewed by a General. He had things he needed to negotiate and only a general would do. I wanted to tell to take a long walk off a short pier but command sent in a general. They need to know the secrets of the rockets and were willing to do whatever they needed to get it including kissing this guys ass.”
“Probably, the reason they sent me on the assignment. They know I know the score.”
“Did they tell you why this guy is so important.”
He gave me a jaundiced look that suggested that I should have known not to ask the question. He responded “There is not much I can tell you. What I can tell you is that he was doing work in biological warfare that the Army thinks is important. But even more important that we keep him out of the hands of the Russians.”
I knew what the Colonel was getting at but nonetheless tempted to ask him a question to make sure I really understood but learning from his previous look decided against it. Instead, I just nodded.
He said “Tell me about yesterday.”
I proceeded to give him a full report on our activity from the day before and ending with the news that we had found Anton Skoda in Portschach am Worthersee.
“Where the fuck is that.”
“It is in the south, Carinthia, in the British Zone. Before the war it was a resort town that visitors would stop at when traveling between Vienna and Venice. According to Tad it is quite picturesque.”
“Hmm. You say it is on the main railway line between here and Venice?
“That might work out quite well for us.”
Two days later I found myself at the Sudbahnhoff. The same station in which I said goodbye to Vienna six and half years before I was once again saying my farewells, at least for now, to the city of my birth. The difference now is that instead of wondering what had happened to my friend Tad, he was with me, albeit in his new incarnation as Paul. Surprisingly, the station had not changed that much in the years since last I had been there. Allied bombs and Russian artillery had punched a few holes into her but by in large she remained intact. Whether this was by design on the part of the Allies or bad marksmanship I did not know but as a budding Artillery officer I wondered how you could miss such a large target. “
I mentioned this to Paul. He laughed “The Russians were notoriously bad shots. The only time they hit anything they were aiming at is was when they were shooting at point blank range. And you cannot really blame the American bomber pilots. Did you see the flak towers the Nazi’s built? They made bombing the center of the city an awfully expensive proposition.”
“Plus” he added needling me. “Everyone knows that Americans, except for Old Shaterhand, are lousy shots.” We both laughed as we made our way to our train’s platform.
The plan that Colonel Granville had come up with during our meeting at Café Mozart a couple of days before was simple misdirection. We hoped that the Russians were paying very close attention to Paul and myself. Or at least enough attention that they would divert enough effort into trying to figure out what we were up to so their surveillance of the Colonel, Cookie and Pichler would be less than robust. Paul, if could convince him, and I would embark on a tour of the city late at night visiting a number of night spots frequented by some of the cities more interesting cities. Our revelries would take us through the night and we depart directly from our evening frolic to the train station where we would buy tickets for Venice with the full intention of going no further that Portschach am Worthersee. While we were off on our jollies the Colonel and Cookie would load up his Packard “Clipper” staff car with our gear and Pichler concealed in an area between the back seat and the trunk. He felt that a combination of Paul’s and my activity, the early morning departure and the lack of any semblance of wrong doing on their part would allow them to pass over from Russian controlled Austria to British seamlessly. If things went well, we were all to meet up at Portschach at the Schloss Leonstan, a hotel that had been commandeered by the British near the center of town.
Convincing Paul to go along with our plan was not difficult. Apparently, the idea of getting out of Vienna appealed to him as he said “yes” even before I finished outlining our plan. Not only did he want to see his Uncle, but he thought after the trouble we had managed to stir up over the last few days getting out of town for awhile might be the most prudent course of action. He had only one question: How were we going to convince the Soviets to allow him to leave? You needed official papers to leave Soviet territory and those would be difficult to arrange. I had raised the same question with the Colonel and he thought that he would be able to swing with the Russians. In fact, he thought that it would be easy as the Russians would be happy to get rid of Paul. The more difficult part would be to get him back to Vienna.
When I raised this point with Paul he laughed and said “Getting out is the hard part. I have plenty of ways of getting back in.” This was a bit counter intuitive to me but I suspected his comfort in finding a way back to was an area of expertise he had developed during the war.
Our part of the plan went as well as we could have expected. Paul took me to a number of bars, nightclubs and speakeasies around the city. Most of these places were makeshift that had popped up after the cessation of hostilities to help people forget the trauma of the last few years and their tenuous existence now. Paul explained that most of the people he knew were live shadow existences compared to their life before the war. The city was shattered. Housing, at least decent places, were hard to come by. Food shortages were constant with old supply lines having been destroyed and the hungry men of the conquering armies being fed before the local populations. The economy no longer existed. Businesses that thrived before the war had been bombed and shelled out of existence. Those that had survived were on their knees suffering an economy that showed little mercy.
Everyone in Vienna had ghosts who haunted them. Those who had died either in the camps, in battle or in the siege and would never return. Their spirits brought to life every day with the familiar surrounding made foreign by war, or the need for their comfort made more acute by their absence. To silence them, people turned to other spirits. At least the ones they could find. There was not much scotch, rye, bourbon left in the city. Most of that had been destroyed or consumed during the war. But people always found a way to make liquor. It was one of the things our instructors at Fort Sill had warned us about. The chemical reaction that fired howitzers and other big guns also produced methyl alcohol that were drained from the guns after firing. We were told that invariably some wisenheimer in the battery would realized this and would try to get drunk from it. We needed to be on the watch for this as it would methyl alcohol he would be drinking not ethanol. And Methyl alcohol while produced a good buzz would also kill you pretty fast.
In Vienna they did not make their alcohol in cannons. They made it the old-fashioned way using stills and what ever yeast and carbohydrate they could find to make their spirits. As Paul explained sometimes this produced drinkable spirits and other times far less so. As a consequence, we mostly stuck to beer. It was often watery, had little flavor and no kick but as I was not much of a drinker I didn’t mind that much.
However, that changed at the last club we visited. It was a speakeasy/nightclub located on Austellungstrasse just a block away from the Prater. I don’t know if it had a name. If it had one I didn’t not see it but then again I was not really looking for it. At that point, it was just after three in the morning I was not at my most observant from a combination of fatigue and alcohol. Like most of the clubs we had visited it was a big rough. At one point it had been a large retail space that some entrepreneur had managed to salvage a few tables and couches and arranged them around a makeshift dance floor where a quartet of musicians played. The bar, if you could call it that, was an old desk that had been salvaged out of a bank or a law firm as it was hand carved and was massive. It was also full of Russian soldiers being entertained professionally by Austrian girls.
Paul and I found an empty couch far away from the dance floor and were immediately joined by a couple of girls who asked if we wanted to buy them a drink. We agreed, in part because of our cover and it would have looked odd had we not enjoyed the company of the dance hall girls and in part because we were nineteen. When the waiter, in an ill-fitting and grungy tux came to take our order the women, Karlotta and Barbara, ordered Champagne which was no doubt was a cheap wine that had seltzer added. Before I could answer Paul asked the waiter if they had any Slivovitz. They did and he order one for the both of us.
I said “What the hell is Slivovitz?”
Paul shared a big smile with me and said “It is something that I discovered during the war. It is a plum brandy. Guaranteed to take the edge off, never get you drunk, and never give you hangover.”
“Who fed you that line of bullshit.”
He gave me a perfectly sincere look and without hesitation replied “It is perfectly true. Have you ever tried it?
“Then how do you know.”
I knew it was useless to argue the point with him. When he invented a story, and this one sounded truly invented, he rode it until it died. Instead, I turned my attention to Barbara. Like all the women in the club she wore too much make up and despite her young age, she was not much older than me, she had a hard look around her eyes. No doubt during the last couple of years she had seen and experience too much of the worst man had to offer. Still she tried to feign an innocence she no longer possessed. After her initial surprise that I spoke German with a Viennese accent and a surface curiosity about what I was doing here she told me her story. It was heartbreaking. Before the war she and her family had been very prosperous. Her father was a banker and they lived in a fine house in Dobling. They had a cook and a maid. She went to Catholic school where she was popular. Then the war came to Vienna. Two days after Christmas 1944 her home had been hit by an errant American bomb. She had been visiting friends and was unharmed but her mother, father and younger sister had been killed. Friends took her in and while the estate was being settled she had a small stipend. But then the Russians came and laid waste to the city. Her friend’s home was destroyed. She had no money and there were no jobs. So what was a girl to do? She needed to eat. And this was not so bad although the Russian soldiers were a little rough.
When the girls left to “powder their nose” Paul leaned over to me and said “You know not to believe anything these girls say? You know they are professionals at getting your sympathy. They want your money and with that uniform on, they probably are looking for you to set them up in an apartment as a “girlfriend.” These are not girlfriend material. Understand.”
For the next couple of hours, Paul and I talked, drank and danced with Karlotta and Barbara all the while drinking glass after glass of Slivovitz. My initial skepticism about it replaced by an appreciation of its unique ability to take the edge off and not make me feel drunk. If anything I felt like I saw the world more clearly and proceeded to share with our little group my worldly insights and philosophy of life. The young women seemed particularly interested in what I had to say and Paul just smiled as if amused by a private joke and nodded his head.
The place shut down at about 5:00 AM and we walked out into the early morning light of a new day. After the darkness of the club it hurt our eyes . Karlotta and Barbara wanted us to take them to breakfast at a place they knew not far from the club. I thought it was a great idea but Paul reminded me that we had a train to catch. We parted ways but not before Barbara gave me a wonderful kiss and a phone number she could be reached at when I returned to Vienna.
As we walked down Venediger Au we could see the green on the Prater in the early morning light. I put my arm around Paul’s shoulder and said “What a great evening. And you were right about that Slivovitz. I feel great. Not a bit drunk. Just happy. Like all my worries have disappeared.” Then pausing I added “Hey do you see that.” And I began running down the street. When I got to the edge of the park I stopped next to a one of those large hexagonal structures that mark the entrance of Vienna’s sewers and said excitedly to Paul “ Do you know what this is.”
Paul, who was now laughing, said “No. What is it.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“I can’t believe you don’t remember. This is where it happened?”
Paul laughing harder in exasperation said “What happened?”
“Don’t you remember the fire?”
In September of 1937, Paul and I had been leaving school when we had overheard one of the adults walking down the street that the Great Rotunda of the 1837 Worlds Fair had caught fire. The Rotunda was the largest in the world and a source of great pride for Vienna. Nothing touches a 12 year old boy’s heart more than the chance to see a big fire. It was exactly the type of adventure Tad and I loved. After all who doesn’t love the spectacle of an inferno of one’s Vienna crown jewels. People would be talking about this for the rest of their lives and seeing it would provide us with celebrity status on the playground. Without giving much thought to what our parents would think of us going halfway across the city to see a fire we jumped on a trolley and made our way to the Prater.
When we arrived, it was apparent that the fire was far bigger and as a consequence far more exciting than we had anticipated. It seemed that Vienna’s entire fire department had turned up to cope with the blaze. There were red fire trucks everywhere. Thin hoses spread like giant serpents hissed water from loose connections. Firefighters, wearing helmets that reminded me of soldier’s helmets during the great war except with a “sharks fin”on its crown with their blue tunics, broad belt, and white billowed pants and rubber boots hustled between their apparatus and the fire, a look of grim determination on their faces. It was all that we could have hoped but there was one exceptionally large problem. We were not the only ones to appreciate a good fire. A huge crowd had gathered to see the spectacle. At the fire lines they were ten people deep. Unfortunately, for us, we were significantly shorter than most of the crowd and could not see over them. We also lacked the strength to push our way to the front of the line and we could see nothing.
It appeared we were sunk. Having come all this way only to see people’s backsides and perhaps a weary firefighter or two resting between shifts at the fire line. It was very frustrating especially when an ooh or ahh would ripple through the crowd signaling an important development that we could not see.
I was on the verge of telling Tad that we should head home, staying and see nothing was not worth the beating I was sure to get from Papa for this adventure when he had one of his inspired ideas. I was sitting on a curb, feeling dejected arms around my knees, giving close inspection to my shoe laces when he grabbed my hand and said “follow me.” Before I could even object, we were standing in front of one of those hexagonal sewar entrances that are all over Vienna with Paul saying “Help me look.”
“Look for what?”
“The door of course.”
I was horrified “Come you are not thinking of going down there.?”
“Why not? We can use the sewers to travel under all those people and get a great view of the fire.”
“I can think of at least two reasons. No, three why nots. First, you have no idea how to navigate down there. We could get horribly lost and then what will we do.”
“We won’t get lost. You know I have an uncanny sense of direction. I can find my way anywhere. Remember that time in the Vienna wood and we got separated from our class. I found our way back.”
“Yeah, well you had the sun and things to guide you. Down there you have nothing.”
“Its simple but if it makes you feel better we can mark our way and if we feel like we are getting lost then we can find our way back.”
“You mean like Hansel and Gretel”
“They thought they were laying a trail and the birds ate and they got lost.”
“Trust me we will not get lost. Next.”
“We are in our school clothes. Do you know what Papa will do to me if I come home in filthy clothes let alone wet and ruined shoes. They are new. Papa just bought them for me at the beginning of the school year. You know how he is about shoes”
“Not a problem. Take the shoes off. Tie them together and hang them around your neck.”
“You are not suggesting we walk barefoot through the sewers of Vienna?”
“Come on don’t be such a baby. It is mostly a storm drain. And even if we come across some of that nastier stuff, we can always wash our feet.”
“The smell will get into our clothes?”
“Don’t be stupid. Now you are only making excuses. We are only going to be down there a few minutes. Even if it smells horrible it won’t get onto our clothes.”
At this point Tad had found that latch to the door and pulled it open. He said, “Are you coming or not?” Refusal meant being called a chicken forever. Constant reminders of that day I did not have the courage to brave the sewer. I went.
We walked down the spiral staircase that led us into the architectural marvel that is the Vienna sewer system. When we reached the bottom, it is quite dark but you could see due to the light streaming in from the open grates on the surface. We sat on the bottom step and took off our shoes, stuffed our socks into them and tied the shoelaces together so they could hang around our neck. Luckily for us, the main tunnel of the sewer, like a small underground river, ran in the exact direction we wanted to go.
Tad asked “How far do you think the police lines for the fire are in front of us.”
I thought and then said “I don’t know a hundred meters maybe one hundred and twenty-five.”
“So if we go that far and then another one hundred and fifty meters farther we should behind the lines and be able to get a good view of the fire. What do you think?”
Still nervous I said “That should work.”
“Good. What we should do is count our steps. When we reach one hundred strides we each call out. Who ever calls it out last is our first line. Then we will do the same for one hundred and fifty strides. Then we look for a way up. Agreed?”
Luckily for us it had not rained for two weeks so the water level in the tunnel was low. But the slick stones ripe with algae and god knows what else felt creepy to walk on. To me it felt like you could catch a disease with every step and fall into the shit river next to you on every other. But I kept my comments to myself. I wanted to put up a brave front for the sake of our friendship. Tad who was a few inches shorter than I was called out one hundred first. I called out it out a few strides after that. The next one hundred and fifty yards proved far more challenging. First, the little light that we had before diminished as there were less open grates as we walked beneath the Prater. Also we began to hear sounds. Not just the steady drip drip of water from the ceiling and the rushing sound of the sluices flow but little squealy sounds that had to be rats. Of course, neither of us acknowledged the twin daggers of fear this placed in our hearts as we both wanted to prove our bravery to each other, but we each walked a little quicker. This time I reached our mark of one hundred and fifty first. Perhaps it was fear but I think it more likely that Tad lost count but he called a few steps after I did.
We began to look for a way out. Lucky for us, maybe twenty-five meters down the slimy tunnel we saw light popping through. When we got there we found another spiral stair case leading to the surface. I led our way up and found myself inside another hexagonally shaped structures. When Tad reached the small room, we opened the door to the outside just enough to peer around. Tad’s sense of direction and boldness had gotten us beyond the crowd and within only a few hundred meters from the fire. We put on our shoes but before I could venture outside Tad said “If we go outside we will surely be seen and they may shoo us a way. But if we sit on top of the kiosk no one will notice us. No one ever looks up. And, we will have an even better view.”
I thought it was a good idea and as a consequence when ventured outside I gave Tad a quick boost using my hands as stair and catapult. When he made it to the roof he lay on his stomach, extending his hands down while a took a running leap at the wall. And between his pulling and my feet clawing against the side of the building I managed to reach the top. There, we were the kings of the world, with a beautiful unobstructed view of the fire and of the fireman’s futile attempt to put out the fire. Or at least it seemed futile to me. The fire fighters kept attacking the fire with more hose lines, different angles of attack and brave forays into the inferno. But nothing seemed to work. The fire just seemed to grow more intense. I heard one of the firefighters yell to another “It’s the damn tin roof. It shields the water from the fire.”
When I heard a nearby church chime 6pm I said to Tad “We have to go soon. I need to get home for dinner. Papa hates when I am not there at dinner time. His says it is disrespectful to Mama.”
Even though Tad does not have a father to deal with he knew mine and understood. But as we were getting about to jump down from our little nest, the 150 meter dome of the Rotunda collapsed. It was spectacular. It sent flames and smoke 100 soaring into the sky and firefighters scrambling for their lives. It also meant we couldn’t leave just then. Who walks out a good movie on the 2nd reel? We stayed a little longer, even as clouds of smoke and ash covered our position. And then even a little longer after that when the firefighters pulled back their line when the rest of the building seems of the verge of imminent collapse. We had to see that. And we probably would have stayed even longer if some eagle-eyed policeman noticed us on our perch and ordered us off and behind police lines.
I did not make it home until almost 8pm. I spent the trolley ride home worried about what I was going to tell my parents when I got home. What could I say to stave off the beating that was sure to come not only because I was late and my parents did not know where I was but because of the strong odor of smoke that permeated everything I was wearing? Tad did not provide useful advice. He kept saying “How can they be mad at you? We were witness to one of the greatest fires in Vienna’s history. Not since the Ring Theatre fire has anyone seen such a fire. They have to understand.”
Everything Tad was true and maybe that would work with Mama but Papa was not the one to understand life’s frivolity. He believed that was life was hard. That you put your nose down and worked hard and you respected your parents by doing what they said. No excuses.” Tad knew this and he was giving me this advice. It made me mad. I said “You are useless. I am going to get a beating for sure.” And we spent the rest of the ride in silence. I didn’t even say good bye when I lept off the trolley at my stop.
I walked up the steps to our apartment like a condemned man on his way to the gallows. I paused for a second in front of our door and taking a deep breath pushed it open. Mama and Papa were sitting at the kitchen table, the remnants of dinner scattered across its top. Mama lept up from the table and wrapped me in her arms and with emotion in her voice Mama said “Yoy, Hugi I was so worried about you. My little boy where have you been.” Then sniffing she released me from her hug pushed me away gave me a once over and said “What have you been up to. You reek of smoke.”
I could see Papa glowering, coiled like a spring about to release, in his chair. I knew he was on a hair trigger and it would take very little to release the spring and for me to get a beating I would not soon forget. I had no choice. I didn’t have the imagination to create a story out of whole cloth. The only option I had was to tell them the whole story of how we come to see the Great Rotunde fire. From hearing about it on the steps of our school to our disappointment on not being able to see the fire and our adventures in Vienna’s sewers to the collapse of the dome. I tried to give them details that would make them feel as if they were there but more importantly to keep the story going. I felt for sure as long as I was talking Papa would not punish me. But finally, I had exhausted the story. There was nothing left to tell. I ended my tale by saying with as much sincerity as I could muster “Mama I am so sorry to have made you worry but you see, it was a once in a lifetime experience. I really could not miss it.”
I waited for the blows to fall as they had in the past when I had disappointed Papa. The anticipation making me hunch my shoulders and turn slightly away from him. I was shocked when instead of a slap I was hit with Papa’s chuckle. He laughed “What adventure! Just the type of adventure I went on when I was a boy. Mama make him a plate of food. Tell me Hugi could you feel the heat of the flames from where you were?”
I never told Tad I had not received a beating that night.
“This is definitely the place.”
Paul gave me a knowing smile and said “No, I think that was on the other side of the Prater.”
“No. No. I am sure I am right. It was right here.” I said stomping my foot in adamance and nearly stumbling for my trouble.”
“You see right over there were the police lines. And over there is where we went into the sewer. It all adds up. How come you can’t see that.”
“Whatever you say Sam.”
“It was a great fire. Did I ever tell you what happened to me when I got home?”
“Well then I am not going to tell you now.
“Okay. Okay. I think we better get some coffee in you before we get on the train.”
The cool glass of the train compartments window felt marvelous on my face. It helped lessen the pounding in my temples and made feel less feverish. But the rocking motion of the train as it pulled out of Sudbahnoff negated all that. Not only did it bang my head against the window which worsened my growing headache but it reminded me that I had a queasy stomach on the verge of becoming volcanic. I may have groaned.
Paul laughed. Taking a bite out of disgusting smelling cheese and pickle sandwich he said “Not feeling so good?”
I lifted my head from the glass and facing him I said with as much vehemence as I could muster. You are an asshole.”
With a mouth full of food and smirk said “And what made you reach that conclusion?”
“What about it? You seemed to like it simply fine last night.”
I raised an eyebrow “No hangover?”
“I might have exaggerated a bit.”
I said, “Well fuck you for your exaggeration.”
Much to my annoyance my retort seemed to please him. Instead of engaging, I laid my head back on the window and let the cool of the glass soothe me a little. Despite my discomfort, I smiled into the glass so my friend could not see: Tad and Hugi were off to their next fire.