Shortly after I accepted Syracuse University’s offer to attend the school, they sent me a small booklet about what life would be like there. I remember nothing about what was in it except they had a lexicon of terms that were unique to the University. A “Wimpy Wagon” was a food truck that was found outside dorms in the evenings. “The Mount “was a Mount Olympus which was the tallest point on campus and where two large dormitories, Day and Flint Hall were located. However the thing I remember most about that lexicon was this phrase: “Syracuse is ten inches of partly cloudy on the ground.” I thought it was funny. I did not realize they were serious.
The joke in the lexicon morphed into another joke when you had been on Campus for a while. “When your parents said they were going to send you to a place where the sun don’t shine, they meant Syracuse.” The generally accepted truth being that Syracuse was the “2nd darkest city” in the United States. Only Portland, Oregon has more cloudy days. (BTW this is not true. I looked it up. Syracuse is not even the cloudiest city in the New York State. Binghamton is with 212, followed by Buffalo with 208. Syracuse manages only 185) Regardless, of rank, part of the SU experience is weather. Rainy, snowy, generally cold salt stains on your jeans cold.
Which is why I was so disappointed driving into Syracuse. Here in March where we should be experiencing a late season snow squall that dropped a foot of snow, it was sunny and nearly 70 degrees. How was I going to explain to Elaine what life on campus was really like when Syracuse decided to put on its best face. I need not have worried. I had forgotten another truism about Central New York. If you do not like the weather, wait fifteen minutes, it will change. When we woke in the morning Syracuse was in full foul weather mode with steady rain and chilly if not freezing weather.
It was into this weather that Rosie and I launched ourselves on our morning constitutional. The hotel we were staying at, the Sheraton Hotel is on campus, so we were immediately met by students on their way to the main campus. It was then that I realized I had made a serious mistake at Syracuse. I had not owned a dog. Had I owned one, my social life which was pretty pathetic would have been far better because virtually, every co ed I encountered either remarked on Rosie’s adorableness or asked if they could pet her. When we went to get coffee, both of the barista’s insisted on coming out from behind the counter to give Rosie a hug.
Sadly, I could not offer my wife a THB (toasted honey bun a specialty of the University while I was there) so we settled for a breakfast of blueberry muffins the size of large asteroids. Sufficiently fueled we headed out for the dime tour of campus. And were immediately driven by pelting to the Shine Student Center by the pelting rain. $75 later we were the owners of two Syracuse University golf umbrellas and re-embarked on our tour. There were a number of reasons I was excited to share the University with Elaine. Not the least of which was that in the nine years that I have known Elaine I have told her many stories of the misadventures I had here. I hoped that showing her the campus would provide a little context to my fables. Additionally, Elaine had never really been on the campus of big American University. Her school, The Federal University of Rio De Janiero were buildings located all over the city including her law school which resided in the old senate building.
Ridiculously, it filled me with joy to be able to point out to her the Hall of Languages, the oldest building on campus and is a symbol of the University. The mosaic of Sacco and Vanzetti on the wall of HSBC where I usually had a bagel and coffee every morning, Hendricks Chapel, Carnegie Library, The Mount, Carrier Dome, The Maxwell School, Law School, Crouse College, and the 104 steps I climbed each morning from my dorm Brewster Hall. And it filled me with amazement how much the University had grown since I attended. No wonder the tuitions for the University are 12x what they were when I was there because literally at every corner their were new building or modern additions to the old.
None of this was particularly surprising to me. It, even the rain, was what I expected.
What did surprise me were the ghosts.
There was my father who finished his freshman and sophomore years in a little over 14 months before going off to war then returning and finishing his last two years as fast. Or the lecture he gave my senior year which was attended by all my friends. Being here, it was easy to remember the young man he was when he attended the University, the father he was to me, and how I miss him every day.
There was my friend Tom Walker who passed away from a brain aneurysm a couple of years ago. He was a young man of many opinions which he could articulate brilliantly especially after we smoke a joint or two. I never saw him after college, but Facebook had allowed us to catch up. His passing had struck all of his friends, The Family Strange, hard but I was particularly sorry that I had never taken a drive to Ohio to visit it with him.
Then there were the ghosts of my memories.. The friends I had made who are still my friends now, like the Tribe, and those who had slipped away and whom I wonder what became of them. The coming-of-age time where angst, fear, and loneliness all conspire against your self confidence and the other times where the innocence of youth gave you the confidence to do things that you could not imagine doing now.
In other words, as Elaine was getting one tour of Syracuse, I was providing myself with another. Perhaps Elaine enjoyed hers more as there were no ghosts on her visit. But then again, she wasn’t used to the rain which is why we pulled up short of a full tour. She was getting wet and Rosie, poor pup, was beginning to look like I had just given her a bath. We retreated back to the hotel and packed up the car for the final leg of our journey. However, before we left town there were two stops that had to be made.
First, I had to buy Elaine Syracuse Law wear. While she looks good in anything, I thought that it would look far better than the Harvard Law school stuff she had been wearing. And then on to Danzer’s, a German style restaurant which had been a popular eatery back when Pops attended school here and was the site of my first dinner at Syracuse and had a sandwich found no where else: The Red Reuben. This is a footlong sandwich based on the classic but substituting Red Cabbage for sauerkraut.
It was a delicious ending to our trip to Syracuse.
Actually, to be fair he was not a lover of musical in general. Who goes around life singing at the top of their lungs. But he particularly hated the Sound of Music. He, as a person who escaped Austria two months after the war had begun, found their story, a family escaping over the alps so their father didn’t have to join the Reich, suspicious. Actually, that is not the word he would have used. He would have said it was bullshit. A story made up so that they could sell their music and their story. While I won’t go into the details right now as it would take too long, he was by and large right. The storyline you see in the Sound of Music is by and large bullshit..
That being said, I love the musical. I think it is Julie Andrews. Boys of my age had a crush on her. It started with Mary Poppins and move right onto to Maria Von Trapp. Even though I was a psychology major I am not going to unwrap that one. But yowser. My wife also loves the musical and will when asked happily singing you any number of songs from the movie.
Which is why we began our day with a mission to visit the Trapp family lodge in Stowe. I justified the trip, emotionally due to my fathers strong feeling on the subject by saying that they made syrup and this was after all sugar boiling time in Vermont. Our mission was immediately de railed by Rosie when she saw us pass the Ben and Jerry’s corporate HQ. She wanted some Rosie Patch frozen dog treats. We indulged her by going in. Sadly, they were closed. Rosie was a little indignant. After all didn’t they name a treat after her but we managed with a few portfolio shots and she showed her displeasure in a very dog like way.
The Trapp family lodge looks as if a bit of western Austria has been transplanted here in the US. It practically makes you want to yodel. And their names is all over the place. Several condo complexes, a brewery, a restaurant and bakery. They are living large on the American dream. Unfortunately, they were not making sugar that day so we moved on. I have no doubt that my father had a role in all of this.
Luckily, my ever sweet sister had sent me a list of syrup makers that morning and I we were quickly back on Task. Stowe Maple products was just a few miles away but we were greeted by an empty parking lot and a closed sign. We were just about to leave when a lovely older woman tapped on our window and asked if she could help. She turned out to be very helpful guiding us through the intricacies of maple syrup grading and packaging. I returned the favor by buying a ½ gallon jug for my sister the bakery, a quart for me, 2 packages of maple candy (childhood favorite), maple cream (just yummy)and some honey for my honey.
Syruped up, we were then forced to make a decision. How to get to Syracuse. We had three routes to choose from but decided to take the long slow way which would have cross Lake Champlain just south of the Canadian border and then take NY 11 south and west most of the way to Syracuse. It was the right decision as it was a lovely sunlit day with temperatures in the mid sixties which is August weather for these parts. In other words, a perfect day for a drive through rural Vermont and New York.
Lake Champlain, if you have never seen it is a wonder. It is a mini great lake and as I Elaine passed through we both agreed living on its shore would be ideal. At least in the summer. I doubt that my beautiful Brazilian wife has any idea what an upstate NY winter is really like. I still have scars from my experiences here 40 years ago.
As urban and suburbanites, and as people who have lived most of the year in the box, you don’t spend an awful amount of time thinking about how much of this country is devoted to agriculture. Your only thoughts on the matter are weather to buy organic or regular rutabaga. Driving Rt 11 gives you a chance to fully appreciate how we feed each other as you pass mile after mile of cultivated farms. It also gives you a deep impression of what the earliest settlers to this part of the world must have felt. They must have felt like they had died and gone to heaven seeing all this cultivatable land.
The sheer size and isolation of the place and the knowledge of the harshness of the 19th century winters (mini ice age) also helps you understand why so many religious movements in the United States started up here. Mormonism, the Burned-over district, the Second Awakening all took place around here. When I casually mention to Elaine bout how natural it would be to have pluralistic marriages on cold winters night she, understandably, does not speak to me for 50 miles
Eventually, our travels on Rt 11 come to a close. We are forced onto 381 and then 81 and make haste to Syracuse. As we speed along the highway I let Elaine know that this was not the weather I experienced at Syracuse. That more than once while traveling this same road in May I had to manage white out conditions in my 1970 Orange VW Super Beetles. It somehow didn’t seem fair not that I was driving Winnetou, a fully capable 4 wheel drive vehicle, that I should get ideal driving conditions. God is a jokester.
Our goal was not to see specific sites but one where the whole idea was to see what sites presented themselves to us along the way The hope was that we would things we had never seen before especially it was a journey that we had never taken before.
I don’t mean this to sound zen or like some inner meditative journey. It really was not that type of trip. Our only goal for this trip was to get to Stowe, Vt. from Bar Harbor, Me. via by using as few Interstate Highways as possible. We were not interested in a speed journey but one that would take us through parts of the world we had never seen and are often to busy to slow down for.
However before we got on the road we needed to get to the car. One of the unexpected parts of this journey is the amount of stuff we need to tote along when traveling with a dog in the time of Covid. Rosie had her own suitcase full of toys, treats, a bed (she likes but uses only for naps) bowls, and food. I don’t resent this in any way although I do wish I had taught her to carry her own bag before we left. Our Covid supplies include several bags containing food stuff, an entire bag containing PPE and sanitizing products and perhaps a bottle of Basil Hayden that I considered medicine after a long days drive. Add all this to Elaine’s and my modest suitcases full of casual wear and it is a production going to and from hotel rooms. Thankfully, we have had a very helpful and friendly porter named Paul who is also traveling with us.
We were blessed for a beautiful day for this expedition. The type of day you pray for after a long hard winter. The type of day you wish for after being spending most of the last year inside your house wishing that the Covid would just go away. Sunshine, mild temperatures and nary a breeze. The beauty of the day also, oddly, reminded me of the first time I was in Florence, Italy. It too had been a beautiful day and seeing the light it case on the Arno, the Duomo and other sites of the city made my understand why the city had been so special to the Renaissance. It evoked a desire to capture it all in any way you could in their case oil paint. The same was true of this Maine day. It made me think of Jaimie Wyeth and his paintings of Maine. You could see his inspiration and color palette laid out before you.
I am not an intellectual and I don’t want the reader to get the impression from the previous paragraph that I am. However, I am always interested in what inspires people to do what it is that they do and seeing this beautiful day and the weathered environs of Maine made me understand a painter I admire better. And isn’t that what this trip was all about. Seeing the world again with new eyes and better understanding?
The first part of our Journey was on 95. The superhighway that links Maine to Florida. At this point in Maine it is nearly empty and straighter than the roads that line the American West. It has lovely scenary that often goes past to quickly to fully appreciate. This is when to the shame of Rosie Elaine and I turn on Sirius 17 “The Bridge” a station that broadcast mellow rock from the 70s and 80s and sing along. Elaine has a beautiful voice. My voice is best described as enthusiastic but we enjoy belting out the songs we know and even the ones we don’t. While I cannot see her I am sure our dog is cringing in the back of the car, paws over ears too mortified to howl.
After about an hour we jump off the highway and onto Maine Rt. 2. This leads through the rural heartland of Maine. Even though I have been to Maine many times, went to Summer camp here, I was surprised at the beauty of the forest, rivers, farms and lakes that I saw. It appeals to the part of me that loves to be surrounded by, nature and does not mind the solitude that it brings. I say to Elaine more than once that I could live around here even though I am not sure I could weather. It also reminds me of something we too often forget living so close to New York. Rural America where farming, logging, and small factories dictate the rhythms of everyday life. It is an enigma to me especially the support I see for Donald Trump that is evident from the lawn signs we see along the way. What is it that these farmers see in a man who could not be more different than them? I guess I could have stopped an asked people along the way but I don’t. Instead I resolve to delve into this more from the confines of my study at home.
One part of traveling the back roads that they do not tell you about in the guide books is the lack of fast food restaurants where you can stop and have a pee. This presents less of a problem for me than for Elaine but she is a courageous Braziliero and has developed a patented method for dealing with this issue. I would tell you how but it is patent pending but call me if you really want to know.
After a few hours we get hungry and stop near the Sunday River Ski resort for lunch. It is a ski town without a winter but we find a deli that makes wonderful roast beef sandwiches with horseradish. But there are a number of things that disappoint me. First, most people here do not take Covid here seriously. The best way I can describe their attitude is casual. It makes me double the amount of sanitizing gel that I use. Also, the gun laws. We see two relatively young men walk into the deli with pistols on their belt. Why? I understand the desire to own a gun. I own one. But to carry it around like a gunslinger I don’t get especially here where the need to protect yourself is mainly from moose. Also, you would think that gun toting and pot shots were not compatible but here in Sunday River there are lot of stores that sell each.
At Camp Skoglund where I went for a couple of summers, they had day trips to Mount Washington. My group was too young to go but I have wanted to see it every since. Especially when I learned that it had the most extreme weather in the United States due to it being the highest point west of the Rockies. It is an impressive mountain and today it is snow capped. We see a sign for the car road to the top but Elaine convinces me that is not something that we want to do. She provides me with the Brazilian equivalent of my father’s tried and true “Lets not and say we did.”
We reach Stowe around 4pm and check in to our new hotel. What I didn’t know before this trip was the amount of paperwork associated with traveling with your pet. They make you sign a disclaimer that is a full page long and tells you that if your dog does not behave they will charge you 250 dollars and for the privilege of your dog staying at the hotel you will pay a $35 fee. I can understand the fee and I can understand the charge if your dog is bad. But I cannot understand both together. If the dog is bad and more cleaning is required charge the fee or you got a little more for the room. Either or. Oh well, I guess that is the price you pay for having a dog who hogs the bed.
In every town we have passed through in our trip I invariably see monuments to those who fought in the World Wars. Here in New England I have seen many memorials to those who perished during the Civil War. I have even on occasion seen a monument to the Vietnam and Korean conflict. Pre-pandemic I would see these monuments and think of them as a part of the background noise that any place produces. The emotional connection that many must have felt seeing them never really struck me much to my shame.
These days my reaction to these tributes to the brave men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country is vastly different. Having been through the Covid wars I understand first hand he suffering of those who erected the monuments. They wanted to make sure that the deaths of their family, friends, and members of their community were not forgotten. That wanted to make sure that those of us who passed by did not forget them. But they also make me wonder: What are we going to do to remember those who have perished during our war on this virus. Nearly 600,000 humans more than both world wars, Korea and Vietnam combined have died. Will we build monuments like we have had for past wars and natural disasters so those who have died are remembered or are we just going to let them quietly into the good night?
We need to remember them. We need to figure out a way to memoralize their sacrifice so that history’s lessons are not forgotten.
We also need to find a way to pay tribute to those front line workers who saw the war up close and whose memories are full of the death, illness, and hopelessness that Covid created. They are heros we need a way to provide a balm for their suffering.
Speaking of them we also need to vilify those who have contributed to this slaughter in the same we have vilified past architects of genocide in the past. They need to be ranked along side folks little Hitler, Pol Pot and Talat Pasha. I am not just talking about Trump and Bolsonaro but deniers like Rand Paul and Ron Johnson. The Spring Breakers who partied on while sentencing their friends to death and the Karens who walk through hotel lobbies maskless along with their maskless brats. We need to figure out to make them pariahs of history.
Why this sudden outburst on Covid on a trip where I was supposed to be released from its grip? It was not the maskless people I saw here in Maine. A lot more deniers and anti maskers than on the rest of our trip but it wasn’t them. Nor was it the scenes in Miami with the clueless college students who are condemning the rest of us to a longer lockdown because they felt the need to get laid. It was my dreams.
One of the unique aspects of the pandemic are Covid dreams. Those hyperrealist, Avatar like dreams in which you are the protagonist. They are almost never good dreams. They always lead to sudden wake ups in the middle of the night trying and hours of trying to figure out what caused these dreams. I had one last night which I will not go into because it still cuts too deep but to provide context let me say that it was about my best buddy who died during the pandemic intermingled with a Stephen King novel. Hey I am in Maine.
Those who will never dream again must be recognized. Those who dreams will never be the same should be honored and the destroyers of dreams must be pilloried.
We spent yesterday in Acadia National Forest and Bar Harbor.
It is a place of profound national beauty that had Elaine, Rosie and I often gasping on the beauty of the Maine coast. The picturesque harbors and the beaches between rocky outcropping. The warm sunshine combined with the wonderfully fresh air of a pine forest was worthy of the trip. And I would write more about it except that most of it was closed. The Acadia loop road which is supposed to be among the ten best drives in America had a single part of about 2 miles open. The rest, much to our chagrin was closed. We were also, stupidly not equipped to go on many of the trails that led deep into the forest.
I could write more about Bar Harbor which is a delightfully nostalgic town with Victorian mansions and stores that seemed to have been built in the 19th century. We had a lovely walk about the town and found it charming. That being said, it too was most closed. Only a few stores, including the one where I bought Elaine some notorious RGB socks were open. But it was a pleasant stroll and again it made me vow to return but that was not the worst part of this portion of the trip.
You see I have been eagerly anticipating this part of the trip because I had a dream of sitting dockside on a glorious sunlit afternoon and cracking open a freshly and perfectly cooked lobsters. I had dreams of drawn butter and tender claws and perhaps even teaching Rosie of the joy of these crustaceans. The day before at Woodmans I had put off my lobster dreams thinking to myself I would have one in Maine
Everything was going well.. The weather cooperated with my fantasy. It was a glorious sunny day with temperatures and on early morning ride into the park we saw countless road side stands offering just what we were looking for but due to the hour, so I thought, they were closed. They filled me with eager anticipation. Needless to say I counted the moments until lunch hour and then made our way to Bar Harbor to find our perfect lobster.
As I mentioned before nothing was open in Bar Harbor. Not a single place that offered outside dining for those of us with dogs who wished to have a lobster. This was sad but I was full of confidence. We had seen so many places on the way in. Surely one of them would be open? We drove deliberately and with our heads on swivels back to Elsworth. There were, I counted, 14 Lobster joints along the way. All of them closed.
Hungry we returned to the hotel where I asked the clerk at the desk where we could find even a lobster roll in an outside venue. He was very helpful. He called several places for us. None were open or had lobster rolls.
And it was then I realized that in terms of Lobster I was the punchline to the greatest Maine joke of all time. I couldn’t get there from here.
The second day gave us freezing cold weather with gale force winds.
The third day, made us forget the weather of the previous two days because it was as near a perfect spring day as New England produces. Temperatures that would reach into the middle 50s, robins egg blue skies with not a cloud in sight. (Authors note: My mother and father had a well oiled comedy routine in which Mom would say “Not a cloud in the sky” to which my father would after examining the skies carefully respond “I think that there is one over there.” It amused them. It amuses me and I can’t write about cloudless skies without thinking about it but why bother you, my reader with it? Oh I guess I just did.)
Our day began in the moment just before dawn as Boston was lit by the pinks, red and gold of first light. There are prettier sights in the world but this was pretty glorious. As we went through our morning routine, Boston did the same. Runners appeared on the footpaths along the Charles. The geese paddled up stream in single file and the crews came to out for their morning workout. It made us want to hurry our ablutions and head outside to start our day. So we did.
Our first stop that morning, was Fenway Park. I could say that the reason we went was to show Fenway Rose where her name came from and that would be true as far as it went. But for those of us who consider themselves part of Red Sox nation it is more. It is a holy place where magical things happen and to me also a place where I used to celebrate spring. When I worked for the Sporting News I would venture to Boston every Patriots Day for the greatest day in sports: The early start time of the Sox game (11am) and the Boston Marathon. I knew it was spring when we would walk up the ramp inside the Park and see the first hint of green of the field and then the monster. It was a time of normalcy and Americana long before the bombing that besmirched that day. For me going back to Fenway meant touching all those points and it was something I wanted to celebrate our freedom from Covid.
Amazingly we found a parking spot next to the stadium. It made Rosie’s photoshoot so easy. But as we began to leave we began to hear announcements. They were calling people not to a game but how to prepare for their vaccinations. The sign of our times. But I should not have been surprised. Fenway has always cured what ailed Boston. After a brief stop to buy Rosie a Red Sox bandana and a few hats to replace some retired ones we departed Boston for the Peoples Republic of Cambridge.
When we arrived in Cambridge we were again blessed by the gods of parking and found a spot just adjacent to the Charles Hotel. It was a small New England miracle as parking in these environs has always been a challenge. No doubt it was a Harvard architect who invented the parking structure because of this. But it set me wondering why we were so favored. Walking towards Winthrop Square the answer dawned on me. The normal hustle and bustle of a city blessed with more colleges and Universities than anywhere else in the world was relatively empty. Not surprising considering the Covid pandemic but a reminder of how the virus has changed the fabric of the country.
We were here for two reasons. Elaine was desperate for a Harvard Sweatshirt. You will have to ask her why and we were also going to meet two friends of mine who lived near by Lori Docich Schulsinger and her husband Larry. Seeing old friends used to be routine. But these days it is a minor miracle. We met for coffee outside in Winthrop Square. Larry, the pack rack that he is, came loaded with pictures form days of yore. When a group of Syracuse classmates held an annual ritual where we would venture to Syracuse in the dead of winter to see a basketball game and behave as if we were still at school. We called each other the Tribe and we had great fun misbehaving and the pictures made me nostalgic. Not only for the annual trips but for a time where Tribalism meant having fun.
It was good to see them both and all too brief as we were soon on our way north. We had a long way to drive today but I needed to introduce Elaine to one of my favorite places first; Woodmans of Essex. For those of you not in the know, Woodmans is where the fried clam. But for New Englanders is much more than that. It is the touchstone of Summer memories of going to braving horsefies and cold water of beach days only to be rewarded by whole belly clams fried to perfection along with Lobsters, chowder and all the accoutrements served in a restaurant that would have been familiar to beach goers in the 30s. I should not have been surprised but was to see the place was packed with masked patrons waiting for a little bit of that yummy stuff. After placing my order with a woman who has been there for all of the 20 years I have been going there I waited outside for my number to be called and stared off at the salt marshes and circling gulls. It was good to be alive.
Elaine took to fried clams like seals take to water. She dove in and pretty soon had to protect my own supply with pointed elbows. After our meal I thought of heading over to Crain’s Beach so my Brazilian beauty could compare it to LeBlond, Ipanema and Copacabana beaches but she already knows American’s are crazy so we headed north.
There is not much to say about our drive. The highways once your reach Maine are straight and fairly flat and on a sunny day the driving is quite easy. But there was one note worthy moment. Shortly after passing into the Pine Tree State we stopped for gas. As we were filling up I took the opportunity to fulfill a promise I had made to myself at the beginning of the trip. I downloaded a Stephen King novel from an Audible and began to listen to it as we continued our drive. It set the mood the well mood until Elaine got creeped out and we needed to listen to music to calm our souls.
Thankfully there was no fog tonight otherwise I could not have walked Rosie.
The first images we ever saw of Rosie was a video that our breeder sent to us when she was about 4 weeks old. It was of her and her littermates on a large blanket on a sunny afternoon. Her brothers and sisters were busily engaged in their version of the Puppy X Games running, wrestling, somersaulting and the like but not Rosie. She was sitting off on the corner of the blanket watching them play. You could almost see the cogs and wheels going around in her brain. Something was going on there .Because Rosie was not the outsider. No. She was observing. Waiting for her moment. Because at the exact right time she lept into the scrum of puppies and won the day. Or at least that is how I remember it.
What I did not at the time was the video provided a glimpse at Rosie’s personality. She is the rare type of dog that does head pall mall into a situation. She needs to think it through figure out the angles and then of course attack the situation with verve, style and energy (authors note: that applies to most things but not rabbits. They make her crazy. Probably too many bugs bunny cartoons as a pup.)
I bring this up because on the first day of the trip, Rosie had retreated to observation mode. Looking through the rear view mirror I could see her staring ahead with an almost quizzical look on her face as if to say “Whats going on? Where we going? I am confused an need an explanation? This confusion on her part led to her endearingly not wanted to be separated from me. If I would leave the car she would follow my progress and whine. When I returned from my errand she would excoriate me for leaving the vehicle without permission and for not bringing her. Even in the hotel room, I could never leave her site and she follow me around like, okay I will say it, like a puppy dog.
She also would not eat. And she drank only sparingly. It was concerning. How can you ramble with Rosie without Rosie?
We needn’t have been that concerned. When we woke yesterday, not only did we discover that she had stolen all the blanket and most of the bed for herself, but that she was in a very playful mood. As if she had just figured out what it was that we were up to and was now ready to play. Not to say she stopped whining when I left the car without her, I mean who wouldn’t.
We had a simple plan for the day. Drive to Provincetown from Hyannis via the back roads. These were altered slightly when we walked outside to a very cold morning and gale force winds. It was so cold that are car was covered in ice from the rain the day before and so windy we had to be careful opening car doors as they could literally fly open at the least provocation. Our new plan for the day, was drive to P-town and if it is too cold and too windy make our way to Boston and show Fenway Rose the inspiration for her name.
On the ride out to Chatham I told her that is a lot of what you see on the Cape is nestled into a time warp. (You put your hands on your hips…) From the 1950’s style motor courts, to the Mini Golf set up and even the fast food restaurants which are of Mom and Pop owned and not operated by Yum or McDonalds. It is nostalgic in the best kind of a way. A simpler time. Which is one of the reasons that we made our first stop at Marions Pie Shop which has been there forever and where I have been known to buy out the place on my way back home so I could have her delicious pies for weeks to come. They also have the best bakery sign in the world “Well behaved children welcome. The rest will be made into pies.” Sadly, we could not order one of their savory pies because they require an oven but I still managed to get a couple of stuffed croissants, a small razzleberry pie and gigantic sticky muffin for nourishments sake.
The Chathams Bar Inn is a place that I have fond memories of not because I have ever stayed there. $400 a night off season, but because of very pleasant meetings that I have had there. It also commands a view of the Chatham sand bar which on this wind whipped day was showing all of its beauty. Elaine and I used the facilities to which Rosie complained bitterly about not being fair. So we drove down to the Coast Guard Beach so that she could play among the dunes and learn how cats live (sand box.) It was very windy on the beach which made her hum the march of the Valkyries although that could have been me. The only down tick for the pup was that there were no seals to play with. She grumbled even though I told her she was not allowed to play with them.
I had never been north of Chatham so the rest of the trip was had my head on a swivel and we took a number of side tours to see different national seashores and beaches. It was on one of these jaunts to a side beach that Elaine made a remark that made me laugh so hard that I cried. But it requires an explanation. I have taken it on myself to teach Elaine idiomatic English. Especially bawdy expressions. One that I taught her earlier this year was one I think my GI dad shared with me “It is colder than a nuns snatch on Friday.” (Sorry) What Elaine said when we returned to the car was “It is colder than Freira’s pussy on holy Friday.”
This trend continued. We saw a particularly lovely house and I asked Elaine what she thought of it and she replied “I would not throw it out of bed for eating crackers.”
The dunes going into P-town are worth the price of admission. The town is picture perfect lovely. I would have gladly stayed for days to explore but the weather was not very cooperative. 60 mph winds and sub freezing temperatures made getting around despite the beautiful sunshine difficult if not impossible. We decided to head to Boston.
One of the reason we headed north on our ramble was because despite being fully vaccinated we felt that going to places where Covid is better under controlled was a smarter move that the opposite. But it begs a question, why is it that Massachusetts is doing better than NJ. While there are many possible explanations one has to be the pervasive amount of signage telling people to wear masks to protect themselves and their neighbors. You cannot go more than ten minutes driving without seeing one. Well done Massachusetts because we have seen nothing but compliance since being here.
The hotel we decided to stay at is Grand Hyatt Cambridge. It offered dirt cheap rates, about $100 a night and had the bonus of being the first hotel I ever stayed it in Boston nearly 35 years ago. It also has a killah view of the Charles, The Fenway and downtown Boston. And for Rosie a wonderful walking path along the river. We were a little nervous about checking into such a large hotel but the place is almost empty and everyone follows protocols up to including individual elevator rides. That and the fact that everyone made a fuss over Rosie. As she would tell you herself, she is extremely petable.
I have to also add, that I have a huge place in my heart for this city. I have been coming here on business all of my career. I have lived here. I can get around without a map which in Boston is a feat onto itself. I feel at home here. Looking at the window fills me with nostalgia and activates memoires that I had forgotten to have. I share this with Rosie and she looks at me as if to say…Hence the Fenway Rose….to which I reply. “You’re a wicked smart dog.”
In June of 1967 my father, brother and I drove across country in our brand new blue Jeep Wagoneer that we had named Commanche. It would be the first of seven jeeps so named. I was thinking of this as our noble Metalkic Granite Jeep Grand Cherokee braved Noah like rains on our trip northward. I had never named this Jeep, only because the indigenous peoples I would have named it for, the Utes, seemed to big a pun. (I know, what is too big a pun) but considering the mileage I do a year it never seemed necessary. But now in the rain, with two sleeping passengers, I recalled that Steinbeck had named his truck Rocacinte after Don Quixote’s noble steed. What should we name our faithful (hopefully) transportation. Since both my co conspirators on this trip were off in the land of nod I was forced to make the decision by myself. I chose Winnetou after the indigenous leader of Karl May’s western sagas not only because he was smart and wise but because my father loved these books. I would like to think he would have approved of this trip.
The day did not start particularly well. On our way out of Dodge (sorry still in the Western mode, New Jersey) I stopped at the NJ DMV to get a new license with Real ID. I had completely studied the requirements of 6 pt of identification. I placed them deliberately in a manilla folder including a copy of my SS card that I have had at the back of wallets for a 50 years. It was with a sense of confidence that I presented myself to the examiner. Hubris. Stupidity. The lovely document examiner promptly told me that I had not presented to her a SS card. It was a receipt for their card. I questioned that. It was an official document after all. I was wrong she said and needed to come back when I could get an appointment. Maybe June.
The good news. It made me happy to leave NJ.
After suffering 2 hours of rainy superhighway I thought it would be great to enjoy something Super Duper. That is Super Duper Weenies just off 95 in Fairfield. It is a place I have visited many times before and they serve some of the best dogs in America and hands down have the best t-shirts. Besides, as I explained to Rosie, isn’t it funny that we were stopping at a hot dog stand on a Ramble with Rosie. She was not delighted with my humor. You can find their menu here https://superduperweenie.com/ Elaine went for a New Yorker (of course) and I chose a New Englander. She had a shake and I chose a Boylan Red Crème Birch Beer because why not. We split fries. Rosie abstained but watched with interest as we gobbled down the unbelievably good franks and near perfect fries.
You may be wondering why that Winnetou chose to point us in a northern direction. As I said, he was very wise. Going south would have meant running into Spring Breakers and Rosie is too young for bod shots and beer bongs. Going west would have been fun but Winnetou was from Oklahoma and it lacked real interest. However, Elaine had never been to the Cape and I have nothing but fond memories of the place so we decided are first stop would be Hyannis.
Even though the rain was near torrential and constant we managed to make it to Hyannis Port by 4 in the afternoon. I was pleased to see my uncanny sense of direction prevailed as I managed to make it off the mid cape and to the destination without a hiccup. It was much as I had last seen it a decade ago and I was glad for that. It is always nice when a place remains as it is in your memories. I decided that Rosie could use a walk so I we drove to the public beach by the Yacht Club and went for a little jaunt in the pouring rain. Rosie spent most of her time nose down in the sand. Too many new smells including old rope, decaying horse shoe crab, and seaweed but I kept my head up. It was a beach much favored by my dog Yankee and I half expected him to round the bend and come flying down the beach to me. At one point I thought it did happen but that turned out to be rain drops on my glasses.
A group decision was made, due to the inclement weather we would cease walking about and head to the hotel. Best Westerns are not Mandarin Orientals but this one allowed puppies so it was just fine for us. It turns out their dog rooms are tiled not carpeted which makes hauling things in from the car with wet feet qualify for hazardous duty pay. And there was a lot to bring inside. In addition to Elaine’s and my rollaboard suitcases, Rosie had a bag full of treats and food. Additionally, she had a travel bed courtesy of my sister and a few other accoutrements to make sure she a mint on her pillow experience. This was after all her first hotel room. Additionally, also coutesey of my sister we had a Levolt portable air filtration system designed to keep us safe from ultra violet light pathogens that were likely lurking everywhere in our room.
When everything had been toted inside I decided that it was a good time to check out the quality and firmness of our King Size bed. I thought that after 7 hours on the road that I probably had earned a visit to napland. Rosie did not think so. Her anxiety was palpable. She kept pacing around the room sniffing and then looking at us like we were going to give her all the answers. Then she did something that she has been trained not to do. Not that. She put her feet on the bed and begged to come aboard. I was more than willing. She could sleep with us every night in Chatham as far as I am concerned but Elaine has deemed our Queen size bed too small for all three of us. Elaine, being suitably moved by her anxiety gave her permission for Rosie to be on the bed.
Which is where she stayed all night. Happily stealing the covers and hogging the bed. But what could I say. It is her ramble.
I don’t know when I first read Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck’s classic book about traveling the backroads of the United States. It was probably High School (thanks Leslie Meskin) but it made a huge impact on me. Some of that was Steinbeck’s prose. It is warm, self-deprecating, charming and funny But it was also teen age angst. I wanted to get out there see the world for myself and the idea of doing in a camper with a canine companion seemed just about perfect.
This summer, after being confined to our home for nearly six months, I was trolling my bookshelves looking for something to read and came across a dog eared (no pun intended) copy of Travels with Charley that had been hiding behind other paperbacks. It was as if I was running into an old friend whom I had not seen in a while. I needed to get reacquainted. Book in hand, I retired to my reading chair and did not get up until I had finished the book four hours later.
It was a thoroughly satisfying experience but what was surprising to me was how much I had not remembered about the book. (It was actually kind of terrifying. What else have I forgotten?) One of the things that had slipped my mind was the reason for the trip. He set out on his journey because he felt that he lost touch with our country. After being the voice of the common joe throughout his career he had spent much the last fifteen years of his life in New York and in the Hamptons. He felt he no longer had a connection to the country that had been his muse.
That resonated with me.
For most of my life I have been a traveling man. I have extremely blessed that business and pleasure have taken me to 48 out of 50 states, 35 countries, and every continent except Antarctica. I have loved almost every moment of those journeys. And it is what I have missed most during our Covid life. Going to the old familiar places where I do not need a map with my rental car and seeing friends who I have managed to collect along the way. Visiting new destinations and making new friends and getting a sense of our country and our world by being a part of it.
It sparked a fantasy.
When Elaine and I were both clear of the virus, we, along with Rosie, would rent an RV and hit the road for a while. Visit friends in far away places. See the sites we have missed along the way such as the statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue Ox babe or Yellowstone park. And perhaps along the way I would keep a blog and let my friends see what was out there now that the blast doors to our Covid shelters were creeping open.
Last Tuesday, I hit the two-week mark after my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Elaine cleared the hurdle on the previous Sunday. To celebrate our full immunity. We have decided to hit the road for a while. Probably a week. Maybe a little less. Maybe a little more. We will go where the car takes us, when it wants to take us there. Hopefully, along the way we will meet some people, have a little of fun and get an idea of what America looks like as it emerges from its Covid bubble.
For those of you who are concerned about our well being we appreciate your concern, but we will be following all safety protocols. We are well supplied with masks, wipes, alcohol gel and even an air filtration system to be used in hotels. We will not eat at indoor restaurants but will find alternative ways of sampling the local cuisine.
As always Rosie will be our ambassador to meeting people as she far more charming than me and gives Elaine a run for the money. And as on homage to John Steinbeck we have decided to call this jaunt “Rambles with Rosie.”
At Syracuse I once was a waiter at one of Chancellor Tolley’s receptions in the University Board room and it had been magnificent. Long and wide, with exposed beams and impressive stained-glass windows lining the wall its centerpiece was a 25-foot-long oak table that had been hewn from a single tree. The floors were made of slate tiles and covered with oriental rugs. Paintings from the Hudson Valley School added a sense of romance and mysticism.
This conference had none of that opulence. It was small. Only about 20 x 15. Its ceilings were low, only about 10 ft high. While the walls were made of beautiful, burnished wood paneling they lacked sheen, as if they had not been cared for recently with “shadows” where paintings had once hung. The Persian rugs on the floor were filthy and torn.
But it did have an element that the Chancellor’s conference at Syracuse did not have. A cast iron trunk trussed with bands of metal connected by pad locks and adorned with a metal bas relief of the Hungarian National Seal surrounded by angels. This conference room at the Seventh Army Interrogation center had been its home since Colonel Granville had brought them here along with Pajtas and his troops two months ago. With no keys to open it, the trunk had been under twenty for hour guard since then. such time as they could be opened.
That time had come. In the six days since Colonel’s Skoda murder Granville Cookie, Paul and myself had doggedly pursued the three keys required to open the trunks. It had taken us all over the British and American sectors of Austria, to a hotel in Luxembourg and finally back here to where the trunks were in “protective custody.” I would love to be able to say that it had been a team effort but that would be shading the truth. Granville, Cookie, and Paul all had specific skills that they had developed over time that helped us in our investigation. I on the other hand was a brevet Lieutenant on loan from OCS whose main contribution had been as a sounding board and giving advice on subjects of which I knew little. More than once during the last month I had wondered why they bothered to keep me around at all.
But we were all here now at the invitation of Major Kubala, the commander of SAIC and the man who had given us the mission to find the keys. He felt that because of our hard work we had earned the right to be there. Along with Kubala and our rag tag crew the only other person in the room was a tall Texan, Lt. Worth Andrews. According to Cookie he was Kubala’s right hand man who took care of the Major’s dirty work and had a well-earned reputation as a serious drinker. We were waiting on the arrival of General Alexander Patch, the commanding general of the 7th Army. Kubala had personally invited him to be there. In part to recover from the embarrassment of having told Eisenhower and consequently Truman that the Crown was in American hands only to discover he could not open the trunks. Cookie had also let it be known that Kubala was a real piece of work. The type of commanding officer who looks for every possible way at aggrandizement and to suck up to the brass. Cookie had described him as a “pissant.” I was not exactly sure of the exact definition of that word, but I had spent enough time in Oklahoma and Texas to know it was not a vote of confidence.
Patch, it appeared, was running late. Instead of dismissing us until the General arrived, the Major, in his wisdom, kept us in the small conference room. The silence was pretty deafening with no one making any attempt to break the awkward silence. I was dead on my feet. The last few weeks had been that of constant stress and movement and as much as I wanted to see the object of our quest, The Crown, I wanted to find a bed and sleep for 24 hours more. It was a classic case of the old infantryman’s creed: “When you do not have to run, walk. When you do not have to walk, sit. And when you do not have to sit, sleep.”
The trip to Camp to Marcus W. Orr from Pörtschach am Wörthersee was not far, only 120 miles or so but it was made more arduous but a couple of factors. First, with the end of the war troops and armies were redeploying based on the needs of an occupying army as opposed to a fighting force. We were continuously forced to pull over to allow convoys to pass we and to stop often to show our credentials when entering different areas of occupation. A trip that should have taken only three or four hours took almost 9 hours. But if felt longer. The events of the day before, both the assassination of Colonel Skoda and Dr. Pichler’s accident had made us all retreat into our own thoughts. Mine were particularly dark.
Pichler had gotten to me the day before. Not so much because of what he had done in creating such a despicable weapon or even the murder to which he had gleefully admitted. But, because of my government’s seeming embrace of this man and the weapons he represented. How could the country that had embraced me, given me a new home and supposedly stood for all that was good, right and decent also embrace such evil? While I understood the need logically, you do what you must to win a war, emotionally I could not accept it.
Uncle Anton’s murder also weighed heavily on me. Of course, there was my feeling of guilt for having led him to his destruction, but it was also the coldness of the murder. A man who had served his country well and honorably assassinated by his “brothers’ did not sit well with me. I grew up in the 13th district of Vienna as a Jew during the Nazi regime. I was not an innocent, but murdering a comrade seemed unspeakably cold.
Camp Marcus W. Orr did not look like a place I would want to spend much time. A large compound consisting of a series of quickly constructed wooden barracks with metal roofs within a dirt compound surrounded by barbed wire fences. It had been constructed to house Nazi officials and sympathizers and others with whom the US Army had decided posed a threat but whose ultimate fate had not yet been determined. From the outside, which is far as I got, it looked like rough living. But Pichler looked happy enough to be there. He practically bounded out of the car to be processed. No doubt happy to be out of our command. However, his mood changed considerably when the Officer of the Watch, after consulting a clip board, informed him that he was being placed under arrest for possible crimes against humanity. When “Heinz” appealed first to the officer and then to Granville that he had been promised a job with the US Army he was met with stony glares. He was told that “the situation hadchanged.” Accusations had been placed against him by former inmates at the Gross Rosen Concentration Camp and until those complaints were settled, any arrangements he had with the Army had been suspended. Much to my schadenfreude, two MPs appeared and led him out of the administration hut.
On the walk back to the car, I could not help but express my joy to Granville saying “I hope that the son of a bitch get what he deserves.”
“What do you mean. He has been arrested and charged for Crimes against humanity. He as much as admitted his guilt to me. Why won’t he get his own?”
“Face facts. We need him too much. From everything I was told he has unique knowledge in how to make this gas and we need it. We are way behind in that area and the Russians are scooping up every scientist they can. We can’t let them get ahead. But we also could not just let him walk on what he did. There were too many accusations. So we will let him cool his heels here for a little while. Maybe we will put him on trials with other scientists. If he is found guilty, he will serve time in our prison and when he is released, we will put him under contract to help us to develop our nerve gas program. If he is not convicted or doesn’t go to trial, he will be given a contract sooner. No matter what he is likely to be living on easy street long before you and I.”
“But it doesn’t seem fair? Well, it isn’t. Life isn’t. Sometimes the SOB wins and there is nothing we can do about it except press on and try to savor the victories we can.”
The next morning found us back at Camp Marcus W. Orr. We were here to have a chat with Enroe Gombas, the former Guard Captain and aide to the now deposed Fascist Prime Minister of Hungary Ferenc Szálasi. We would have seen him the day before when we had dropped off Pichler but the Colonel who was in charge of the Hungarian prisoners, Martin Himler, was not present and no one could interview his charges without his permission. Even though I imagined Himler as a bit of popinjay there was a reason behind his requirement. Orr is where Hungarian War criminals were kept and the allies were actively constructing “crimes against humanity” cases against them. Colonel Himler was inserting himself into any interviews to make sure those prosecutions went as planned.
There was a lot at stake. According to Granville the Allies now had verified reports that over 700,000 Hungarian Jews had been slaughtered in death camps under the Arrow Cross regime. The number of deaths had staggered me. Not because I had underestimated the anti-Semitism of the Hungarians. From what Mama, who was Hungarian by birth, it had always been there. But because of the sheer numbers. It was hard to comprehend a number that large. That was more people who lived in Pittsburgh. Hell, we had states that had less people living in it than that. But that number was also extremely personal. Mama had thirteen brothers and sisters many of whom were still living in Sopron when we had left for the United States. I was especially fond of my Uncle Ede, Mama’s baby brother, whose sons and I used to play together when we would visit with them. What had happened to them? Were they still alive? How would we find each other?
The revelations of the mass murders and the likely deaths of my relatives with the murder of Anton had me as tense as a virgin on her wedding night. Granville picked up on this. On the drive from our hotel in Salzburg to the camp he schooled me on interrogation techniques. How successful interrogation did not mean leaving your emotions at the door but to use them tactically to obtain your objective. He asked, “What is our objective this morning.”
“To find the keys for the trunk.”
“Not to solve Anton Skoda’s murder?”
“No. But if we can find out…”
Cutting me off he said “It is not our job. This guy won’t give a shit about Skoda. He is already facing a death sentence. Pushing him on it will just make him shut up and won’t get us any closer to finding the keys.”
I pressed him and said “Then who speaks for Anton. He signed his own death sentence when he spoke with us. Don’t we have an obligation to find out who murdered him?”
“Are you talking about the person who pulled the trigger? Or the person who ordered him shot? Two different things. We know who ordered him shot. Gombos or one his cohorts. As far as who pulled the trigger, we need to leave that to the Brits. Their town. Their responsibility. Their bailiwick not ours. We can only be responsible for what has been asked of us. Do you understand?”
I did. But I did not. It seemed so unfair to Anton but at the same time I knew Granville was right. We could not right all wrong. But it left me feeling empty. As if they act of moving on from Colonel Skoda’s murder had removed a small part of me. I said “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Because you are going to take the lead in this interrogation.”
“I have a history with this guy. He lied to my face once and if I am on the one interrogating him, emotions are going to come into play on both sides. It would not prevent us from getting where we need to go with him, but it would slow us down some. I am hoping that if you take the lead on the questioning, he may open up a little bit more and perhaps even let his guard down and then I can sneak in a sucker punch. And besides” he added with a chuckle “You gotta get your cherry popped one day.” I am not sure what he meant by the last comment, but we spent the remainder of the trip with him briefing me about Colonel Himler.
Himler had immigrated to the United States as a teenager in the early part of the century. He worked as a miner in the coal fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia until he decided life underground did not suit him and he began peddling in and around the mines. Eventually this led him to create a daily newspaper for the Hungarian miners who made up a large population of these towns. It was a huge success and allowed him to eventually buy his own coal mine and build a town he called Himlerville. When War broke out in Europe, he tried to enlist but was repeatedly turned down because of his age, he was in his 50’s, but eventually the OSS accepted him due to his extensive contacts in Hungary.
When I asked Granville how he knew so much about Himler he chuckled and replied “Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes with him knows that story. He is enormously proud of it and happy to let you know how successful and important he is.”
Colonel Himler met us in his office. Mustachioed and shorter than I expected he had the chin tilt that characterized those who wished they were taller. It was clear from the outset of our conversation that everything that Granville had told me about him was true. Before we had even sat down in our chairs he began telling me his biography. Thankfully, Granville cut him off saying “Cut it out Martin. I already filled in the kid on you.”
Himler seemed a little miffed at not being able to share his story with me but gave a little nod and asked “So what brings here today?”
Granville responded, “We need to have a conversation with Captain Gombos.”
“Do I need to give you a reason?”
“If you want to speak to him you do.”
“Even if I told you it was on a need-to-know basis.”
That Granville and Himler were well acquainted with each other I knew from our conversation in the car. What I learned from this exchange was that had butted heads in the past and neither one of them much cared for the other. There were a few seconds of silence before Granville answered the question.
“Do you remember when you were in Augsburg a few weeks ago and I showed you the trunk that supposedly held the Crown of St. Stephen and that I had been assigned to find the keys to unlock the case and how I might need your assistance in tracking them down?”
“We think that Gombos might have knowledge of where those keys are and want to chat with him about it.”
Himler raised an eyebrow and asked with suspicion “Why?”
“Come on Martin. You and I both know that these Hungarian fascists hate your guts. You have arrested them. You have arrested their families. You are going to send them back to face Soviets courts. They just as soon kill you as to talk with you. I need to cajole this SOB and they won’t warm up to me and Floessel with you around.”
You could tell from the expression on Himmler’s face that he was both offended and complimented at the same time. Offended that Granville had the audacity to suggest he was not welcome at an interrogation of his own prisoner but complimented that he held sway over those in his charge. But it did not matter. Granville had played him perfectly because in short order we were sitting in an interrogation room speaking with Enroe Gombas.
You can tell that at once that while he still carried himself with dignity, he was a greatly diminished man. He had to force himself to sit erect in his chair and struggled to give the air of indifference. But defeat was written all over him. His eyes were sunken with heavy bags underneath and darted all about as if an attack could come at any moment. His shoulders were slumped and exuded the weariness of someone who has been knocked down one too many times.
We did not introduce ourselves. Instead, I began by saying “Is your name Enroe Gombos?”
“Was your father Gyula Gombos, former Prime Minister of Hungary?”
“Yes. What is this about?”
“Just answer the questions please.”
“Were you an aide to the Arrow Cross Prime Minister of Hungary Szálasi?”
“I worked for the people of Hungary.”
“Answer the question yes or no.”
“Yes, but what is this all about.”
“Were you also a Captain of Crown Guard.”
Sighing he replied “Yes.”
I took a second to gain eye contact with him and asked “Did you know a man by the name of Anton Skoda, a former officer of the Crown Guard?”
Gombos answered automatically “I don’t recall knowing anyone by that name.”
I paused and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes from my blouse pocket and offered him one which he took with shaky hands. I took one myself and then lit both of our cigarettes. Exhaling a large plume of smoke, I said “I am going to ask you that question again and you are going to answer me honestly this time because I don’t have time to fuck around. Understood?” He nodded and I added “Because if you fuck around when I leave here, I will make sure that Colonel Himler spreads the word about how cooperative you have been and all the vital information you have provided. On the other hand, should you decide to be truthful with us, our conversation will only be between us. Do you understand?”
He nodded and I asked, “Do you know Anton Skoda.”
Fifteen minutes later we left Gombos in the interrogation room with a pack of Lucky’s and no doubt a few regrets. Colonel Himler intercepted us as we were leaving the building. He said “That went quickly. You must have used some very persuasive techniques.” clearly implying that Granville and I had used physical techniques in our conversation with Gombos and further that would not have bothered him if we had.
Granville answered him “No. Not at all” and pointed at me said “ Sam here cracked him like an egg.”
Himler, surprised, replied “Really?”
“Really! And he also gave up this” holding up an ornate iron skeleton key on a leather thong.
The sight of the key clearly annoyed Colonel Himler. No doubt Gombos had been searched any number of times and no key had ever been uncovered. The fact that Granville and I had managed to get in 15 minutes must have humiliated him because he said “I am going to have a serious conversation with the prisoner about keeping things from me.” With that the popinjay gave a sloppy salute and headed towards the interrogation room where we had left Gombos.
“Aren’t you going to stop him?” I asked.
“Why would I?”
“Because we promised Gombos that we would protect him from Himler. He knew that there would be hell to pay for keeping the secret from him.”
“Didn’t you tell me earlier that you wanted payback for the death of Skoda.”
As we made our way to the car, I realized that for the second time today I was being confronted by a moral dilemma. Since I was a little boy Papa had drummed into me that a man only had one thing of a real value and that was his reputation. That if a man gave his word, he needed to keep it. I had promised Gombos that I would protect him. Now I was walking away from him. Breaking my word because of another obligation: making sure Uncle Anton’s death was avenged. The difficulty I was having balancing these things must have shown on my face because as we were getting into the car Granville said “Son, don’t think about these things to much. We have a job to do. That is what you have to keep your eye on. Nothing else matters.”
“I am working on it. But tell me one thing. Why didn’t you mention anything to Himler about the other keys.?”
Granville chuckled. “He didn’t ask.”
That afternoon found the team on the road to Augsburg and SAIC. We were heading there because in addition to it being Granville’s commanding officer we believed there was good shot that the two keys that remained unaccounted for we were there. Gombos had told us that after he had left Colonel Skoda’s home with the keys, he had been ordered to take them to a Father Strasser in a small-town north of Salzburg called Zelhof. He almost made it was stopped by an Army patrol just outside Mattsee. When he could not present any legitimate travel papers, they had become suspicious and was arrested. He had been taken to SAIC for interrogation.
In ironic twist of fate one of the first inmates at the camp he had run into was Colonel Pajtas, the man who had ordered him to retrieve the keys. He told Gombos that it had been decided to do everything possible to keep the Americans from opening the trunk. It was hoped that if they could delay long enough a settlement could be reached whereby the Crown would go to the Vatican where it would be kept until such time as a legitimate government of Hungary (non-communist) could reclaim it. Pajtas then demanded that he turn two of the keys over to him for distribution and allowed him to keep one but to protect it with his life.
By the time we had reached Gombos and interrogated him he had bigger problems that protecting a key. He had been a part of a government that had killed 700,000 Jews and was now facing trial and a possible death sentence for war crimes. Moreover, his family name was on the line. His father had been a luminary, Prime Minister and we could destroy that legacy if he did not cooperate with us. Clearly the calculus of his decision making was that helping us would serve him far better than protecting a single iron key that by itself was worthless. The only part I could not figure out was why he gave up Pajtas. He did not have to. Perhaps it was an attempt to curry more favor from us. Or perhaps he was prosecuting an ancient grudge. In the long run, it did not matter. As Granville had pointed out to me that morning. We have a job to do. And that is what you had to keep your eye on.
The drive to Augsburg from Salzburg was not far. Just about one hundred and fifty miles. However, it was painfully slow going. We were passing from an area controlled by Patton’s Third Army to Patch’s Seventh. Patton was a real pain in the ass with regulations, hell his troops wore ties, so passing from one zone to another required minute inspection of documents, countless clip boards consulted and a few hushed conversations before we were allowed to proceed. Combine that with the roads being in poor conditions made for a long journey. The only saving grace was that it gave Paul, who along with me, was sitting in the back of our staff car while Cookie drove and Granville rode shot gun, time to speak. Something we had not been able to do for a variety of reasons since the murder of Anton Skoda.
I asked “How are you doing.”
He gave me a woeful look and replied “Nit mit sheltn un nit mit lakhn ken men di velt ibermakhn.,” an old Yiddish expression which roughly translates as “Neither crying or laughter will change the world.” While I was surprised that he was using quoting Yiddish wisdom I was not surprised at the sentiment. He had always been a bit of a stoic. It was he who had told me with great admiration the story of the Spartan child and the fox. A boy finds a fox on his way to school and hides it under its tunic. The fox, restless and angry, gnaws at the boy’s flesh just above the heart. The child studied his lessons without a word or cry, though he grew pale and weak until he collapses. When the teacher rushes to him the fox leaps from the boy’s toga and runs away but the boy was dead.
He was telling me that he was hurting over the loss of his Uncle. It was eating at his insides but what could he do but grin and bear it. Life went on. He was also saying that there was no need to talk about it because if I had a lick of brains in my head, I would understand the pain he was feeling and we need not talk of it as it would only embarrass us both. Friends do not need to share a lot of words to understand each other, and even though Paul and I had walked very separate paths over the last seven years the bond of understanding that had been forged between us all those years ago was still as strong as it ever had been.
I asked, “What do you think of all this?”
He knew what I meant. I was not talking about the car ride. I was asking what he thought of this game of intrigue that he and I had become wrapped up in. This adventure that had without question changed the trajectory of both our lives. He got a playful smile on his face and said “My dear Shatterhand, while you are still a greenhorn, I the great and wise Winnetou have been living this life for a long time.”
While I bristled at the idea of being called a “greenhorn”, it being one of the great insults we would hurl at each other as children, I also knew that it was true. While I had been in the United States learning how to become an American he had been here, learning to navigate the tricky waters of survival in a world at war. I replied, aping a quote from Karl May “Hey I know how to put on a knife, so it does not stab me in my thigh when I bend over.”
“Yes, but precious little else.”
“Maybe so but I won’t be a greenhorn for long.” Pointing to Granville I said, “He seems to think I have promise.”
My comment was off the cuff, but it seemed to catch Paul off guard. He scowled and said, “Are you sure that is what you really want?”
Confused I responded, “What do you mean?”
“I mean are you sure you want to get caught up in all this intrigue and spy nonsense?”
Defensive, I replied “You seem to be enjoying it just fine” instantly regretting what I had I stuttered “I mean…I didn’t mean.”
Paul held up his hand “I know what you meant. And, putting Anton’s death aside. I am enjoying myself. But it is what I have been doing for years. I am good at it and I get the pleasure at being good at something.”
Grateful for being let off the hook from my gaff “I said “You always were the cunning one, the master planner, when we were playing our games in Vienna.”
“You occasionally made a contribution.”
“Nah. You were the planner. I was the researcher. And despite how annoying you were I mostly followed your lead.”
He smiled and we sat in silence for a few moments, and I asked him a question that had been nagging at me since Maria Saal. “Paul, I am here because I have my orders. But as they say in Texas ‘You don’t have a dog in this fight.’ Why are you here?”
“Because Granville asked me to be here.” He said with his largest wise ass grin.
“That is not an answer.”
“Seriously, why are you here. What is in this for you besides being in great company.”
“The company is so so. But the answer is still the same. Granville asked.”
“Okay. Why did Granville ask?”
Sighing Paul said, “He wants me to meet some people.”
“Now you are just being an asshole. Why does he want you to meet people? Who does he want you to meet?”
Leaning forward, he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and said “Don’t be so dense, Sam. I am being recruited.”
“Recruited for what?”
“That I am not sure of but no doubt it has to do with helping them gather intelligence.” I must have looked at him with a blank, confused expression my face because he added “Honestly, Sam it is just like when we were kids and had to explain to you all the obvious things you were missing. Don’t you get it?”
“That while one war is over another is just beginning. Do you think the United States is going to sit by calmly while the Soviets, the communists, get a grip on Europe? They will not. They know, you should know that where east has always met west is Vienna. Our home city will be where the two powers clash and your boy Granville is recruiting people who can help the US when that clash comes.” Pausing he looked me in the eye and added “And that is why he is grooming you.”
Slapping me in the face would not have surprised me more. I stuttered “What do you mean?”
Paul laughed “You really are misshoganah you know. You asked me, why are you here. I could ask you the same question? Why are you here? Why do they need some greenhorn 2nd Lieutenant here? Do you think they need your expertise in interrogation? Do they need your well refined detective skills in tracking down the keys to open these verkakte trunks? They could easily do everything they need without you.” Always needing to get the last jab in added “Probably better.”
I was more than a little stunned. Paul was right. I had not even considered while I was being dragged along on this journey. It never occurred to me to do so. I just figured that as long as they had dragged my ass to Europe they might as well make good use of it. But really what benefit was I bringing them. Cookie and Granville spoke German as well as I did. So it wasn’t for my language skills. They had far more experience in the Army and intelligence work than I had. I had little to offer once we got Paul on board. So why was I here. Undoubtedly, Paul was right. I was being recruited. And oddly, I did not know how I felt about it. I had always loved spy novels and it was not hard to imagine yourself as the protagonist in a story where there was no consequence to being brave and noble. But in real life when you made a mistake you paid for it with your life like Uncle Anton had or your values got compromised like ours had been with Pichler.
As if he could read my mind Paul said “Can I give you a piece of advice?”
“Don’t do it”
“Don’t do what “
“Don’t get sucked into this world of spying and intrigue only for intrigue sakes. It is not as romantic as you think it is and it doesn’t suit you.”
Indignant, I have never liked being told I could not do something I replied “I think I would make a damn good spy.”
“I didn’t say you wouldn’t. I said I said I did not think you were suited for it. Sam, you think too much. It would wear on you like an engine without oil. Eventually you would just seize up. Besides, you have better options.”
Only a little appeased I asked, “What about you?”
“Sam, this is the life I have led for the past six years. There is no difference. This may not be what I was born to do but it is where I have developed a lot of skills. I could not have lasted as long as I did with Nazi’s without them. Plus, you saw what Vienna is like. It is a wasteland. No jobs. No opportunity. That is not going to change for a while. What else am I going to do?”
I could hear the frustration and sorrow in his voice. This is not the path we had discussed as kids and it was clear from his tone and words that this was not a path that he would have chosen for himself. It made me feel badly for him. No one likes to be trapped. My empathy for him made me ask “What would you do in my situation?”
“I would tell Granville thanks but no thanks. I would do my time in the Army and then I would go back to school. Live that dream we have had since we were in school together. You can still do it. Don’t give it up for this bullshit.”
We rode the rest of the way to Augsburg in silence, each of us lost in thoughts of lost dreams and new realities.
The Schloss Leonstain claims to have a history that begins in the 12th Century. It did not require a vivid imagination to believe that bit of local lore while sitting in its Taverne located directly adjacent to the lobby. It was a dimly lit place with only a single shuttered window located high up the wall directly above the outside entrance. The bar, which was ten feet long, and hand carved out of a dark wood had a patina that suggested centuries not years. The floors were made of wide planks of varnished wood that looked as if countless gallons of beer had spilled on it and was rubbed in by hard soled shoes. Hanging from the center beam of the ceiling was the coat of Arms of the Hotel, the supposed former royal castle of Carinthia: a lion that looked remarkably like the lion of St. George standing on its hind legs above three elliptical domes meant to represent mountains.
No doubt that the lion made it popular with the British troops who occupied the area. I am sure that it seen more than its fair share of pints raised for god and country in the past month or so. However, when I entered it early in the evening on the day Anton Skoda had been murdered, the place was empty. Not even a bartender. That suited me just fine. I needed time to sort through the events of the day and having to engage in conversation with anyone would only be a distraction. As there was no bartender and I was anxious to anesthetize myself I grabbed a bottle of Slivovitz and a glass from behind the bar. If anyone asked, I would tell them I thought it was self-service. I brought them to a table in the darkest corner of the bar and sat down with my back to the wall.
I am not a drinker even though I had spent endless hours stocking the shelves at Uncle Max’s store. Despite belonging to a fraternity when the foundation of Greek life where imbibing was considered sacred. I did not have a taste for it. Perhaps it would come later. But right now, I needed to drink. Which is why I chose Slivovitz. While my experience in Vienna with Paul had produced a massive hangover and I had sworn bitterly at the time never to touch the stuff again, I also remembered that it had tinted the world a lovely rose color and allowed me to forget, at least for the time, all of my worries and anxieties. I needed that now.
I had never seen a dead man before. Or at least I had not seen one that I knew. In Vienna before the war, it had been impossible to avoid death. There had been too many suicides too many displaced, too many beatings. But I had never seen a person I knew let alone a person with whom I just spoken dead.
After the shot, I had held Paul down for as long as I could. He was desperate to get to his Uncle and fought me. But I am bigger than he is and I managed to keep him down until it was obvious that no additional shots would be fired. When I let him go, he sprinted to his Uncle with me on his heels. It was a horrible site. Anton lay face down on the ground with half of his skull blown away exposing bone, blood and brain. Remarkably, at least to me, my friend did not wail or cry out. Instead, he collapsed downward, like a dynamited building ending up with his legs crossed Indian style his face in his hands. He made not a sound but the look of grief on his face was unmistakable and heartbreaking. Especially since I knew that in no small part, Colonel Skoda’s death was on me.
It was all I could think about at that moment. I may not have fired the shot but I certainly had caused his death. Had I not shared Anton’s secret with the draft board, had I not asked Paul to find his Uncle, had we not met with him, there is no doubt that he would be alive a this moment.
What made it worse, is seeing my best friend, my brother in all in blood in such pain. I had brought this agony on him. He would not have exposed Uncle Anton for anyone else. But he had for me. A person who albeit inadvertently was responsible for destroying his life. Now I had taken even more.
I poured myself a shot of the plum brandy and downed it a single mouthful. It was rough and burned all the way down. But I almost instantly felt release from the headache and shoulder tension I had been nursing for hours.
The first authorities to arrive on the scene were British Royal Military Police in their peaked caps white bandolier belts. They had been called by the nuns who maintained the church. The Lieutenant who was in charge of the squad, a man called Bates, was everything you might expect from an English officer: exceedingly polite, determined, and cynical. He of course wanted to know what Paul’s and I were doing in the British zone of occupation and specifically what had brought about our meeting with Colonel Skoda. He didn’t readily believe the store I wove for him which was that Paul, and I were childhood friends who had come here to meet with his Uncle for a reunion of sorts. While it had the merit of being true it did not explain why Anton was wearing a priest’s vestments or why someone had shot him in the head.
When he, politely but quite firmly had asked for more details. I, as equally politely and firmly declined to provide him any. A standoff ensued that resulted in Paul and I being be detained. Not exactly the low profile that Granville was hoping for but it did have the effect of bringing out Paul’s sense of humor. For as long as I had known him, he had found a way, even at the darkest of time to find a way to lighten the situation with a quip, a barb or witticism. He instinctively knew that a laugh would help defuse a situation, apply a little anesthetic to gaping wound or booboo. The murder of his Uncle was not an exception. Lt. Bates had detained us by placing us in the back of the deuce and half that had brought him and his troops to Maria Saal. We were sitting opposite each other on hard wood benches and my friend, looking with a solemn glare and said “Shatterhand, look at the trouble you have gotten me into again. Now we are going to have call in the cavalry or figure out a way to break out of the hoosegow.” This was all done in German, except hoosegow, which has no effective translation in German, but the use of the word at the end of a long German sentence combined with the use of the Karl May nicknames we had called each other during our boyhood adventures made us both laugh. So much so the British MP guarding us turned around and looked at us as if we were a little crazy.
It was at this point, that Cookie and Lt. Granville arrived. There arrival was not exactly a surprise. When one of the real priests of Maria Saal had arrived to investigate the shot that had killed Uncle Anton, I had the presence of mind to ask him if there was a phone, I might use to call my superior officer. He directed me to the rectory where I had the operator connect me the Colonel at Schloss Leonstain. He was brief. Stay with the cover story, say as little as possible and wait for his arrival. Luckily, I saw Cookie and the Colonel before Paul did and said pointing “Look the cavalry has arrived!” This minor witticism produced a serious case of the giggles which was completely inappropriate for the situation but entirely necessary for us to cope with what had happened.
When Granville reached us, we were still trying to recover our equilibrium. “I am glad you two have managed to find the humor in all this” he said shaking his head in mock disgust. “What is the situation.” Before I could answer Lt. Bates arrived on the scene and he whisked Granville off in the hopes of getting a better understanding about what had happened without the benefit of my input. Cookie, who had arrived with the Colonel, gave Paul and I a look that expressed with one shake of his head how pathetic he thought we were and then departed following the two officers.
The arrival of the “calvary” had cured us from our case of the giggles and I looked across at Paul. Elbows on knees, he was staring down at his shoes with a doleful expression on his face. We had not had the opportunity to speak since the murder of his Uncle and I looked at him and asked “How are you doing?”
Looking up with an ironic look on his face he said, “I have had better days.”
Trying to express the growing sense of guilt I had for Colonel Skoda’s death I said “I am sorry for all this.”
He shook his head “Don’t be.”
“But I am responsible for all this…”
“Hugi…Sam. It is not your fault. Uncle Anton knew what he was getting into when he agreed to meet with us. He knew the risks. He chose to accept them. That is on him. Not you.”
“No buts about it. He was a soldier always. He chose the risks he wanted to take and took them. You heard him in there. He wanted to do the right thing. And talking to us was, in his mind, the right thing to do. He knew what the consequences could be but he did it anyway. Look at the arrangements he made to meet us. We thought the security was because he was concerned about being taken into custody, but it was not. It was because he feared others within this Crown cabal. That they would not be happy with him talking to the Americans. That whatever secrets they kept would be shared.”
“Sam…this is in no way on you. Didn’t you see how he behaved in the church? He knew something was up. The lightening of the candles. The genuflecting. I can tell you that was not Uncle Anton’s normal behavior. He did it for a reason. He knew that what he had done had consequences. He did it anyway and prepared for it. He died with a clear conscience and in a state of grace. He absolved himself and us.” Pausing for a second he added almost wistfully.” And it was over before he knew it was happening. No fear.”
Paul would not tolerate my self-pity. For the second time in as many weeks he had absolved me of my sins. But I needed to say something. This was my friend, my brother in all but blood. I needed to let him know that he was not alone in his grief. I tapped him on his knee and when he looked up, I held his gaze and said “I am sorry then that he is gone. Sorry because I know he was like a father to you and you loved him like a son. I am sorry because he was a good man and treated me kindly when he didn’t not have to. Sorry because even though you say he was a soldier, and he knew what he was doing I am too and I know that his death here and now is my responsibility.” It was not until I said the last sentence that I realized how angry I was about Anton’s death. It was bestial and unnecessary and the people responsible for it were worse than criminals. They had acted out of zealotry and hatred and it is that what we were supposed to be fighting against.
“Paul, I can’t make this right. Not with you. Not with me. But I can promise we will do what the Colonel asked us to do. Will find the Crown. We will do our best to protect it.”
He gave me a halfhearted smile, the kind you give someone who has made a promise that you don’t quite believe that they can keep and said “okay.”
The bar was still empty which was just as well. I had no desire to make conversation with anyone. I had a lot to process. The events of the day had been traumatizing for sure. But it was not just that, but it was how I gotten here what was to come next. This was not the Army life I had imagined. I should be off firing howitzers on some tropical island in the Pacific or directing a barrage at some mountain town in Italy. Instead, I was caught up in intrigue where the battle lines and who the enemy was were not etched in solid black lines. I didn’t have any doubts that what I was doing was valuable but I was not sure whether this way of life was compatible with who I thought I was. My thoughts swirled and the circular bottle of Maraska Slivovitz beckoned me.
When Colonel Granville and Lieutenant Bates returned it was clear that they had come to some understanding. Paul and I were ordered released. Bates asked to speak with Paul about what he wanted to do with his Uncle’s remain. Granville grabbed me and walked back to “Clipper” staff car. Resting against the trunk of the car he offered me a cigarette and when he had lit both of our Lucky’s he said “This certainly went tits up. What the fuck happened. And give me the short version. Save the long version for your after-action report.”
“Colonel Skoda had the keys to the trunks but two weeks ago a Captain Gombos came to see him and demanded he turn over the keys. He did so with great reluctance and later regretted it. It is why he agreed to meet with us even though he knew it would put his life in danger. He thought Gombos and whomever he was involved with were going to use the keys as some type of bargaining tool. He thought that was unworthy of the Crown and he wanted us to protect it.”
Granville took a deep drag and let out a billow of smoke and said “Did he happen to mention Gombos’s first name.”
“I believe it was Enroe.”
“Son of bitch.”
“We have the son of bitch in custody.”
“That is what Colonel Skoda claimed. He said that Gombos was being detained at Camp Orr.”
“He is. In fact, I interrogated him about the keys before I left. He claimed with the innocence of a choir boy that he had no idea what I was talking about that he was just an innocent soldier who happened to be in Szálasi entourage.”
You could tell that Granville was steaming. Everything about his demeanor screamed it from the tight-lipped expression on his face to the stiffness of his posture. He took another deep drag of his cigarette and then flicked into the grass and said “I am going to roast that bastard. Lets find Cookie and Paul and get out of here.”
Not surprisingly we found Cookie chatting up a few of the Royal Military Police. It had become clear to me that one of the roles he played for the Colonel was to gather the gossip from the troops and noncommissioned officers. His easy-going nature and slow talking southern accent made people feel comfortable around him instantly and they shared secrets with him they would not have shared with others. When he saw the Colonel signaling to him, he managed to disengage from the MP’s with them laughing and patting him on the back.
Paul was harder to find. He had disappeared from view but after a few missteps we managed to track him down in the vestry where he was making arrangements for his Uncle’s burial. As he explained later, this was not simple. Uncle Anton had told Paul years ago that he had wanted to be buried near his parents in Sopron. However, that was not possible now with the Soviets having control of that territory. Instead, he and the priest had agreed to find a suitable spot for his burial locally and then, when they were able to transport him, he would be moved to his final resting place. Then there were the normal considerations of casket and service. Paul wanted everything done immediately. Today. Not because of his adoption of the Jewish faith and its burial customs but because he wanted to come with us to Camp Orr. His uncle had given his life in the hopes that we could protect the Crown and he had a duty to help complete that mission.
I thought that Colonel Granville might object but surprisingly he did not. He told Paul that he thought he could be helpful especially in leveraging his Uncle’s name. I did not realize until much later that there may have been another reason as well.
The bartender appeared at my table looking miffed. I guess that he didn’t appreciate my liberated the Slivovitz. Not that he said anything. My uniform probably prevented that or it could have the US Dollars I handed him. They seemed to shut up peoples complaints fairly quickly. due to the liberated bottle of Slivovitz but my uniform kept him from saying anything. I asked him if they served food at this hour. I had not eaten since breakfast. He scowled and told me that at this hour of the afternoon he could probably put together a Brettljause, the Carinthian version of charcuterie. That sounded perfect and I asked him to bring me one. He agreed and then promptly remained standing in front of my table I got the hint. I slipped him a few more greenbacks and he disappeared as quickly as he appeared.
I was just about to pour myself another shot of Slivovitz when Cookie walked into the bar with Pichler in tow. I cursed under my breath. I really wanted time alone. As an only child, it was the company I kept most often and where I would retreat when having to wade through thorny issues. Today certainly qualified for the latter. That was not the main reason for my curse. One of the earliest lessons the Army had taught me was that no time was private time. The primary reason for my curse was Pichler. From the outset he had been unpleasant. But also had a unique talent for and seemed to revel in getting under my skin. He reminded me of Teodore Kreuz, a kid in Paul’s in my class at school who was unctuous with teachers and condescending with his classmates. If there had been a vote, he would have won hands down for the student most likely to be punched in the face by anyone who met him.
When they arrived at my table Cookie took one look at the bottle of Slivovitz on the table and said with his characteristic twang “Son, that stuff will make you see double and feel single.”
Laughing I said “Would you like to join me?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” He told Pichler to sit and went to the bar and, not finding the barkeep nearby pulled to glasses off an overhead rack. I poured him and the Nazi a shot of the amber liquid. Cookie, well aware of the day I had, silently tipped his glass to me and downed the brandy in a single gulp. Pichler too raised his glass and said “To what are we toasting today?”
Cookie gave him a cold dismissive stare and said “Shut up Ketchup” using the moniker that he had labeled the German Scientist with since nearly the beginning of his custody. It had started out as a bit of a joke. A way to harmlessly have a little fun at our prisoner’s expense. However, when we noticed how much it annoyed him it became a taunt we were more than happy to toss at him whenever we could.
“Son, I am sorry to say but “57” here is your responsibility for the next few hours. The Colonel needs to run some errands for him before we leave tomorrow, and I got no place else to park him.”
As much as I wanted to ask Cookie what these errands were, I knew better than to ask him. He probably would not have told me if we were alone. He certainly would not in front of the Nazi. Instead, I said “One for the road?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” I poured him one keeping my glass empty. Now that “Ketchup” was my responsibility there would be no more drinking. Downing his last shot he said, “Time to pour on the fire and call in the dogs.” I did not know exactly what that meant but I suspected it was a version of goodbye in Kentucky as he left after saying it.
Pichler reached for the bottle of Slivotvitz and said, “May I?”
Figuring an ossified prisoner would be easier to managed that a sober one I replied “Sure. Help yourself.” He poured himself a health shot. Downed it. And then another. At this pace he would soon reach a level of stupor where managing him would no more complicated that letting him hug the commode.
Perhaps the one characteristic that has plagued me my entire life is curiosity. As a child Mama’s constant refrain was “Hugi, kennen Sie denn nicht das Sprichwort: “Neugier ist der Katze Tod”” or “Hugi, have you not heard “Curiosity killed the cat.” In and of itself curiosity is not a bad thing. My inquisitiveness had made me a good student and that in turn had propelled me to college. And perhaps someday it would even lead me to a career as a physician, a scientist or even an academic. I hadn’t decided yet. But sometimes it is better not turn over rocks to see what is underneath. This was probably one of those times. But I was curious why “Ketchup”, as much as he annoyed me, was trying to drink his way into unconsciousness. After all, he had a sweet deal. He was, by the Colonel’s account a dedicated Nazi scientist who had used his skill and knowledge to create chemical weapons that would have condemned millions to an agonizing death had they been used. But instead of being treated as a prisoner of war or even being tried for war crimes he was being offered a contract with the US Government. In all likelihood, he would be in the US, living a good life, before I finished my hitch.
I should have said nothing. But that cat compelled me to do otherwise. I said “Ketchup, you might want to slow your roll a little bit. I don’t want to have to carry you upstairs. Besides, what do you have to drown your sorrows over. You are getting a new life courtesy of Uncle Sam.”
Pichler shot me a contemptuous look and replied “You think that you are giving me a new life. Hah. That is a rich one. The Allies destroyed my old life. Now they think they can replace it by forcing me to work for them. It is not the same. You don’t think I know about having my life destroyed? My wife and my daughter were my whole world. I did whatever I could to give them the life they deserved. Then one day, you Americans come along and drop a bomb on them and they are gone. Obliterated. Not even enough of a body to bury. Sneering, and revealing himself as a nasty drunk added “What do you know? You are nothing but an arrogant little boy playing dress up as officer.”
Perhaps it was the Slivovitz in my belly or perhaps it was seeing my friend’s Uncle murdered that day or the fact that when I lay in bed at night, I still saw images of my sweet grandmother being led away to camp Or maybe it was because his hit too close to the mark on how I felt about myself during moments of self-doubt that but he instantly got under my skin. I replied. “Fuck you Ketchup and the god damn horse you road in on. You declare war on the world because of some made up mythology and divine right and then complain when humanity fights back? I am sorry that your wife and daughter died. I really am. But you are more responsible for their deaths than the pilots who dropped the bomb. You and the rest of your crowd who thought that Germany’s destiny was to rule the world through ethnic purity and the Aryan ideal. Your hands are covered in the blood of your wife and child and millions of others.”
“And you are complaining that you are getting a free pass. A chance for a new life while my aunts, uncles and cousins are ashes. You get to breathe free air while the boys I grew up last memory was choking on Zyclon B.”
I paused for a second. My emotions were getting the better of me and I realized that was just what Pichler wanted. He liked playing with people and he was playing with me now. I took a deep breath and decided that I was not going to play anymore but I could not resist taking a last shot and said “Go ahead and drink up. But both of us know you are not drinking because of what the “terrible Americans” are doing to you. You are drinking to forget what you have done to yourself.”
Pichler picked up the bottle of Slivovitz and poured himself another shot of the amber liquor. Then, his eyes fixed on mine, tossed it down his throat. Then said “Do you know Lieutenant Little Boy what my work is that makes me so valuable to the Americans? Would you like to know what I did during the war that allows me to have a new life?”
I shook my head and said “I couldn’t care less. Our job is to transport you to Camp Marcus W. Orr. That is it. Everything else is above my pay grade.”
He poured himself another few fingers of the Slivovitz and blessed me with a very cold smile. “That is too bad. Because I am going to tell you anyway.”
We were in public and I could not stop him from talking. He began.
“Have you ever chemical gas called Tabun? No? I am not surprised not too many people know about this. In 1936, I had just completed my doctorate in Organic Chemistry and was hired by IG Farben to be an assistant to Dr. Gerhard Schrader. I could not have been more thrilled. Farben was one Germany’s industrial giants and Schrader had a world class reputation. The team I joined had been tasked with the creation. an insecticide that would kill weevils and leaf lice that were destroying crops all over Germany. I was very honored to get this job because Schrader was a word class scientist specializing in insecticides.. Schrader was determined to solve this problem. Not only for the glory of science but he knew that it would come was a large cash prize that he desperately wanted for his family. We work tirelessly for over a year, often incapacitating ourselves through exposure to toxic chemicals. Schrader even had an accident one night coming home from the lab that he said was due to over exposure to the gas. It laid him up for several weeks and the research came to a stop. But eventually we came up with a fumigant that killed all of the weevils and lice 100% of the time. We called it preparation 9/91and we proudly sent it off to an associate of his for independent testing.”
We did not hear back for months and we were beginning to worry that are efforts had all been in vain. Then one day an Army officer came to our laboratory. Apparently, Schrader’s associate had shared a sample with the military, and they had tested it on apes. It killed them in 16 minutes. 16 minutes! We were told that our “brainchild” was now the property of the state, considered top secret and that we should await further instructions. Schrader was horrified that his creation had been used on primates. He never intended to create something that could be used to kill people. I was less aghast. I was an ambitious young chemist and I figured hitching my star to something of great use to the Reich could only help me in the long run.
“A month later Shrader and I were invited to Farben’s headquarters in Berlin to present our research on product 9/91 to the board of directors. They were astonished at our breakthrough and they heaped praise on us. They thought it the most important development in chemical weapons since mustard gas. They were so delighted with it they gave it a new name. Tabun from the English word for taboo. We were told to create one kilogram of Tabun and hand it over to the Army for production.”
“And that was the end of it. Or so I thought. We went back to creating insecticides. The crops still needed to be protected from weevils and leaf lice. We heard nothing about it for years. In the interim I met a woman. We fell in love, got married and eventually had a child. Then one day, Dr. Otto Ambros came to our laboratory. He had been placed in charge of creating a full-scale production facility for Tabun. They needed a scientist to help supervise manufacturing and they wanted Schrader to go. He refused saying he had pressing work on insecticides but nominated me to take his place.”
“I guess I could have refused to go. But why should I? I had no problems helping the Reich in the war effort. What is the difference in the long run if it is an explosion, bullet or gas that kills an enemy as long as they are dead? Right Floessel? Besides I had a wife and a child and needed to secure my future. This was a chance for me to get ahead. I took the job. As I didn’t know how long I would be gone I sent my wife and child to Vienna to live with my mother. I thought they would be safer there.
“The production of Tabun was a huge industrial site in a small town in Lower Silesia called Dyhernfurth. I had been told that it was one of the Reich’s crowning achievement in manufacturing. Along with Farben, Blaupunkt, Siemens, Krupp and Damiler Benz all had operations there. Needless to say, I was full of anticipation to see these marvels of modern industrialization. I imagined sparkling modern facilities with a uniformed work forces working harmoniously for the good of the Reich. That is not what I found.”
“The facilities were brand new and state of the art in their way. They did have the latest machinery and manufacturing mechanisms. But the workforce I had imagined clad in color coded coverall’s that denoted area of expertise happily going off to work each morning for the glory of the Reich that did not exist. My work force wore the pajamas of prisoners. You see what I had not been told is that the manufacturing facility was located at the Gross Rosen Concentration Camp. We had heard rumors that the deported had been putting into camps and forced to work for the Reich but here it was confronting me along with the sign “Arbeit Mach Frei” over the doors of the camp. Instead of the colorful overalls of happy workers going off to work my work force of my fantasy my “employees” consisted of slave laborers wearing uniformed but wearing the tattered pajamas of inmates of Gross Rosen. Their shop supervisors wearing the uniform of the SS. I was surprised by this development only because I had not been told but the more I thought about it I realized how this represented the Nazi ideal of making the most of the resources available to us. We had millions of , Jews, gypsies and other perverts who had no place in society so why not use them to build a stronger Reich.”
“Do I have your attention yet Lieutenant Saugling?”
I said nothing and Pichler continued.
“As it turns out that have slave labor at facility making a deadly gas is quite useful. We could work them as hard as we needed to keep up with production. If a few died because of the work so be it. There were always more to replace them. In a normal manufacturing facility, you would have to build elaborate safety protocols to keep the workers from getting sick. At Gross Rosen, we didn’t bother with those things. It was too expensive to build and cut down on production. And if workers died because of the lack of protocols. Then so be it. There were always more workers.”
“And Floessel they begged to come to work for me. With me at least they could work where it was warm in the Winter and out of the sun in the summer. They would thank me every day. It was wonderful to feel so appreciated.”
“Keeping up with production was paramount. Nothing would stop us. For example, there were areas of our plant where you needed to wear safety suits with a respirator. But when we received a shipment of defective equipment for example if the respirators hoses were too short to connect properly that was fine. We sent the workers in anyway. They died horribly writhing and unable to breathe their bodies twisted in contortion but they survived long enough to do their jobs. We stayed on schedule and they were only Jews so what did it matter.
“One day, after I had been at the facility for about a year the Commandant of the camp, SS-Sturmbannführer Johannes Hassebroek, came to me and asked me to arrange a demonstration of Tabun for him and some of his fellow officers. He told me that they wanted to see with their own eyes what this new “wonder weapon” would do. Needless this required elaborate arrangements. We built a special facility. A large sealed room in which we installed a special ventilation system so that the gas could be introduced to the chamber. The room was equipped with a large viewing port that had on its other side a hermetically sealed room in which Hassebroek and his associates could view the room. But the construction was not our biggest problem. It was how do we get the prisoners inmates into the room with the least amount of agitation. It really wouldn’t do for our demonstration if there were upset.”
“We decided that we would tell the prisoners we were giving them a special meal because we had achieved our production goals for the year. They would be led to the special facility where they would be seated at long tables that had been laid out with loaves of bread, fruit, cheese and other food stuffs. The room would then be sealed and the demonstration would commence.”
“On the day of the demonstration everything went exactly as planned. When the officers had been seated, I gave a short presentation on what to expect. Then the Jewish inmates were led in. We only used Jews for these types of demonstrations as they made up the majority of the prisoners and of course it is what was expected. As expected, they were overwhelmed with the food on the tables and with laughter and joy began to enjoy their feast. It was a young woman who reacted to the Tabun first. She abruptly stood up, first becoming very stiff and then quickly lapsed into convulsions and foaming at the mouth. Other inmates went to help her and of course they too felt the effects of the gas and lapsed into paralysis and convulsions. When the remaining inmates realized what was going on they stormed the door but they could not escape the gas and they too fell victim to Tabun convulsing and gasping for breath.”
“When all the prisoners died do you know what the officers did? They applauded and told me what fine work I had done…”
“It turns out I am rather good at making people die. That is why your Government wants me so much. Because I can teach them how to make people die…”
“What do you think of my story Floessel? Isn’t it a real American success story? Isn’t it grand that you and I will both be in the same Army soon? “
A few hour later I heard a knock at the door to my room. It was Cookie come to take over guard duty on Pichler. I let him in and seeing Pichler, who was sitting in a small chair in the corner of the room said, “What the hell happened to him?”
I responded “Not really sure Cookie. One moment he was telling me a story about his experience in the war and the next moment he was falling up a flight of stairs.”
Cookie cocked an eyebrow and said without thinking “How do you get a black eye from falling on the stairs…Oh…it must have been quite a tumble.”
“Yeah. I don’t think he was expecting it. And the first fall must have really thrown off his sense of balance because every time he got up, he would fall right over.”