In a Dark Wood

forTBR-10

1

There were four bunks in the room and two seemed already claimed.  Some boxes sat on them, partly opened, and some clothes hung on a rope between two poles along one wall.  But no one was about, so after picking the upper of the two remaining bunks and filling an empty drawer in the bottom of one of the two wardrobes, I was suddenly overcome with fatigue and crawled up to the top bunk for some shut-eye.  Supper was two hours off, I saw from the orientation-brochure, and I needed a deep breather.  I’d arrived the day before, one of the first exchange students to study in Germany after the war, courtesy of a fellowship I was awarded only because the first two winners of the competition at Milwaukee State Teachers College were somehow invalidated for reasons that were not made public.

Only moments after closing my eyes, the sounds of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” pounded my ears!  Three guys, who looked more than a few years older than I, were holding recorders like flutes to the side of their mouths and marching around the room, tooting and laughing.  One had something of a Civil War cap on his head, one wore a sailor’s cap jauntily, and the third’s head was wrapped to look wounded.  I shot up, shook awake, and saluted.  They came to a smart stop at the bed’s edge.

“Hello, hello, hello!  Name’s Sebastian Bauer.  And you are?”

I slurred my name so he cocked an ear, and I belted it out.

“Good,” the second guy shouted back. “Just making sure.  This is a time of spies and imposters.  I’m Martin von Ganderstein, but our 14th century castle’s no longer available, so we’ll have to find other vacation destinations when we take you cycling with us on our holiday

break.  You can ride a two-wheeler, I presume?”  His accent rode a bit of a mocking curve, and I thought he could be kidded back.

“Von Ganderstein?  The very same name as Germany’s mass muderer of the last half of the 17th century?  No wonder your castle’s been converted into a home for indigent women.”

They looked at one another.  “Ho, he speaks German, comrades!” the guy under the Civil War cap said.  I pointed to the third guy, who took a step backward.

“Okay, okay, we give up.  Welcome to our side of the big pond. We’ve been duly warned we’d have to put up with an Ami for a roommate,” he said. Before I could get another syllable out, he went on: “Call me Heinz, not Ishmael.  I had a last name, but see this scar, courtesy of a Russian sniper?  Hard to remember it sometimes.”  I gulped and Heinz continued. “Actually, Sebastian here’s better off.  Seb, lift up that ugly foot, show the Ami whereof I speak!”  I leaned over just as Sebastian raised his leg, stuck to the bottom of which was a monster boot with a huge, raised heel that, I could plainly see, extended his leg down to the floor so he could stand level.  I had an urge to ask about it, but Sebastian bailed me out.

“Walking wounded: we have the same expression.  Can’t alas dance the way I used to, but at least I didn’t have a girlfriend to lose to sympathy when I crawled back from the Italian campaign.  But nice to note you seem fairly intact, at least on the outside: guess you never had a chance to suffer the life of a foot-soldier, so now you’ll never know how you’d have stood up to the test.  Or even if we were the best damn soldiers the world had ever known till your guys woke up.  At any rate, before I start ranting and raving again while awake, you and Martin can do our heavy lifting when we order you to, right, Heinz?”  He gave me a hand so I could jump down and join their formation.  Four abreast, we headed to the Mensa.

“To chow down,” I chirped. “In case you want to pass for an Ami, that is,” I couldn’t resist adding. They rolled their eyes as if on cue.

Along the way to the Mensa, I learned that Martin had also seen some scary combat.  His U-boat had barely survived a depth-charge attack off Ireland, after which he got the willies and had something of a breakdown.  He spent the war’s last years working as a nurse in various field hospitals.  He’d been lucky, he said, not to have faced a firing squad, which would have been the norm earlier in the war.  He showed me a picture of his unit.  I couldn’t pick him out because he’d lost a tremendous amount of weight.  No wonder he was also almost bald, though his red mustache immediately reminded me of my uncle’s, who with my aunt helped calm my parents down when they learned I’d be so far away for more than a year. We’d never been separated for more than a week, which I’d spend with my aunt and uncle in Rockford, summers. Good God, I better drop them a line soon, too, I chided myself.

We were taking our time getting to the Mensa, because, as Heinz said, the later in line, the more likely you could avoid the standard menu.  And substitutions tended to be leftovers from the Americans at the nearby base.  “They even bring over hot chocolate and big, fat cookies when the weather turns colder.  They drive over with vats of it and ladle it out like you wouldn’t believe – from the backs of their trucks.  Enough calories to see you through a bear’s hibernation.”  Heinz ran his tongue over his thick lips.

Sebastian dropped to a knee to tie his good foot’s shoe.  I made a motion to help but he snapped at me with some phrase only the others understood.  When I apologized he spun around and locked me in a vise.  “My arms can still get me a job as a circus strongman,” he said in my ear, tenderly.  “So never turn your back on me, sonny.”  I suddenly realized he was at least twice

my age and more than twice as strong.

 

2

The Mensa was in its own shed-like structure, which Seb told me army engineers had built in a hurry to speed the “TH’s” recovery.  Everybody called the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt the “TH.”

“All that practice building pontoon bridges to breach the Rhine did it,” he added.  We quickened our pace past the last of the Quonsets on a side street lined with lindens, some of which bore ugly burn marks.

“British lightning,” Martin said sharply when he saw me staring at the trunks.

“Speaking of the night that will live in infamy, to quote a former enemy,” Heinz said, “I hear one of our professors lost his entire family in the raid.  Their house was, as we used to say, strategically located.  Right down from Merck headquarters, which, you better believe, is still standing…”

Mais oui,” Martin cracked his voice, “isn’t that how the New Order is supposed to work?  Besides,” his tone grew suddenly bitter, “I think Professor Breiter was in the midst of a divorce and spending the nights with the cause in Frankfurt, which I note is conveniently out of Darmstadt’s range.  At least that’s what’s come to my one good ear.”

“Did you guys notice in the catalogue that Breiter’s only course is required now?  He’s supposed to humanize us science freaks,” Sebastian added, pushing back a raft of his raven-black hair.

When we finally reached the line that was forming to enter the dining hall, I needed some

blanks filled in.  “Think I missed that, about Professor Breiter and the requirement. What’s going on?”

“I’ll tell you when we load our plates with good old herring and cottage cheese, unless your countrymen show up with better fare. But my granny would approve, she could live on herring and cheese,” Heinz said. “And of course our nice new Ami here can tell us if the cabbage soup’s up to the standard of his granny’s.”  He put his arm tightly around my shoulder, “But as your new roommate and,” he hesitated, “a potential friend for life, I should mention that the infirmary’s not up and running yet so you might take a pass on the soup.”

We cleared the checker, who waved us on without asking to see any I.D.  A much older

woman, stooped, almost toothless, handed us a ringed napkin, a fork, knife, and a huge spoon.  “You darlings see that big washbasin over there?  Make nice and clean when you finish, and I’ll stick you in my nightly prayers.  And not to forget, you are responsible for the silverware and your cup, so off they go in your company.  Forget them and you better have clean fingers.  The plate’s on us, unless you walk off with it, too.  Let’s assume we catch you, so your monthly allowance from your papa will be adjusted accordingly.”

Sebastian caught my surprised look.  “Just think, mate, last year the beautiful cutlery was chained to the tables.  I kid you not.  That’s how much this institution, to call it just one of many things, trusts us souls who almost gave up our rotten lives for the, what, Third Reich, was it now? Can’t somehow count that high.
“And someone who had to go round and wipe them off is now out of work.  Managed to shoot up the misery index, I do declare.  By the by, eat as fast as you can, because otherwise the tub to wash your plate and silverware in will be nice and slimy. Some deranged souls tried

petitioning for at least one change of the wash water in our shift. Hah, what a joke.  They even sent a delegation to the Director’s door.  His wife invited them in for tea and that was that.  Talk about maneuvering skills worthy of our military machinery.”

“Hey,” I tried, “I just met the Director and his wife at a little welcoming ceremony when I arrived, and she seemed really nice and all….”

“From the top of the bun on the top of her very large head, down to those silly nursery shoes, she is so very nice,” Martin cooed, “but she’s in a cocoon and their kids are growing up in fairyland.”  Sebastian couldn’t resist wondering how two such different bodies could fit together to make children.  I was taken aback and vowed not to interject any more little observations.  We sat down to the herring and cheese, which to everyone’s amusement I polished off with gusto.

“Long as I don’t have to make it, I happily eat whatever’s before me.”  As soon as I said that I regretted it.  My new brothers shook their heads all the way to wash-up.  “So, what’s the movie, tonight?” I tried.  Wrong move again.  I thought I’d better eat any more words that made it to my lips.

“Ah, Mr. Hollywood, maybe with your connections, you can order up a preview of the latest film. That’d be really so very kind.  Isn’t there a famous producer who shares your family name?” Heinz threw my way.  I tried not to think he meant any sort of anti-Semitic slur and just put up my hands to surrender.  “Stick some nice white gloves on those fingers and we’ve got ourselves a proper Swiss policeman to make sure there are no accidents at our busy inter-

sections,” Heinz lisped.  Have got to watch myself more closely at every turn, I said way under my breath.

When they asked me, albeit hesitantly, to join them for a smoke – I figured they were trying

to smooth things over – I said I’d better get back to the room, what with the semester about to start.  They seemed relieved, and Martin said they’d be quiet as a sub hugging the seabed to avoid depth charges, if I was sleeping when they returned.  And definitely not to wait up for them, Sebastian chimed in.  On the way back I realized I never did find out about Professor Breiter’s course, but thought I’d better research that on my own, given the sparks of our exchanges.  For my part I felt I had some repair work to do, even as I felt toyed with.

 

3

When I came up the walkway to our Quonset, it was crowded with other students who must have just arrived.  Some were milling around, greeting old friends it seemed.  Others hugged loved ones goodbye and headed in with their satchels and suitcases.  I could see similar activity at the other Quonsets down the row from ours.  I was grateful no one paid any attention to me and hoped no one could smell my origins, or otherwise tell from how I was dressed, or even walked, that I was their guinea pig for a year.  I did recall the Director mentioning there might be a few other foreign students from Africa coming in the spring, but I was likely the only one en-
rolled for the first term.  For now, I wanted to disappear in the crowd, at least till I felt more at home and revved up my German enough to keep me aloft.

The door to our quarters was propped open and several guys were pushing their belongings down the cement floor, chatting as they went.  I was startled to hear Professor Breiter’s name in the air.  I seized the moment, made a motion to help someone, and was handed a box of books to carry.  Quickly mumbling my name as we ambled along, I hoped to pass for German for now.  One guy, muttering something about his sore back, did ask me to repeat my name.  But no one showed any sign of surprise or even curiosity.  Perhaps I was starting to pass as a native, though

I’d be sure to slip up at some point, I couldn’t help feeling—what the hell, just slide a piece of paper under every door with the facts about me.  That’d be that, then.

When we reached a room near mine the little band I was among stopped, and Klaus Heinrich, who now offered his name, handed me an apple.  “Totally worm-free!  From my grandfather’s orchard in the Odenwald.  Down the road a piece.  He always insists on picking two whenever I leave.  One for me, and one for someone, he says, who’s nice to me, by which he usually means my girlfriend, Eva,” Klaus laughed.  “Since she’s not back yet to kiss me, you win the apple.”  I took a smacking big bite.  I might have myself a real friend, depending.  At bottom quite a pitiful reaction, I realized.

One of the other guys, Paul-Friedl something or other, said, “Klaus, what you didn’t mention is how long it takes the old geezer to produce those apples.”  Paul-Friedl turned to me, “Old granddad Heinrich’s on crutches now, honorably wounded in World War I, he’ll tell you. He creaks up from the table and makes his way tortuously into the back orchard, while everyone at the table sits in silence till he returns—what, an hour or two later, is it?  With two apples under his cap, looking even deader than usual.”  Klaus punched Paul-Friedl in the arm and pushed him down the hall.

“Listen,” he turned to me, “it’s quite a nice ritual.  Every family should have one.  Of course I plan on an extra hour or so for saying goodbye, what’s the big deal?”

 

4

I didn’t want to pretend any longer, not in Klaus’s company anyway, so I spilled my story to him after the others moved on.  He seemed genuinely surprised.  “I knew you weren’t from around here.  I even thought you might be a refugee from the other side of the divide” he said,

gesturing to the east.  We joked about sending a card to my teacher when I mentioned her trick
of pretending to be from a distant town, far enough away so no one could say they didn’t exactly talk like that, there. “Actually,” Klaus added, “I thought a couple of your expressions were pretty academic, even odd, but since your grammar was correct, down to those intricate subjunctives – a specialty of mine, by the way – I really wouldn’t have guessed American.  As for me, I’m hoping to major in German when I leave here with a snout full of sciences, to make my grandfather happy.  But then I’m going to find a good pedagogical institute, which I believe you call teachers colleges.  That’s the quickest way to get approved to teach in our grammar schools.  I’m naïve enough to believe that that’s one decent way to make a difference.  To try to undo some things we’ve done, individually and collectively – I mean to work on the language of the young.  A huge subject, of course – maybe we can talk about it some time when I stop sounding like a mere politician with empty rhetoric to spare.”

“Absolutely,” I said after a few moments of digesting what he’d said, but decided not to reveal I was a student at a teacher’s college.  “The more I get into studying German – and thinking I should eventually add a few more languages to the mix once my German’s strong enough, so I’m not just swimming on the surface – the more that interests me too. But I’m mostly here for the science now.  My family’s pushing me hard toward medicine or research.  It’s either that or get a pharmacy degree so I can inherit my father’s drugstore – the one he keeps saying he’s keeping going just for me. That’s another story for another time, as you say.”

“Talk about coincidence,” Klaus lit up, “I’m really only doing science and math now to pacify my grandfather.  He thinks I’m going to take over the orchard when he’s gone and really make it ‘scientifically profitable,’ as he puts it.  I don’t have the liver to tell him that’s pretty unlikely.                                                                                                 At least not now, when he’s not feeling in control of his body much.”

“You wouldn’t have a little time for a question or three, do you, before I let you move in, I mean?”  Checking his watch, Klaus said he’d need to leave in a bit, but shoot.  I jumped to the Breiter matter and learned he was something of an enigma, not to mention prima donna.  Mid-career he’d switched from serious scientific research to investigating linguistics, which made the Nazis nervous, because they’d been counting on him to come up with some shortcuts to their drawn-out refinery processes.  Breiter and oil production were practically synonymous at the time.  They let him wander off and frankly no one understood, or understands to this day, how he could basically step back from aiding the war effort, given his prominence.

“Then, right after the war ended, Breiter suddenly reappeared,” Klaus continued, “with a long study of the Nibelungenlied and its ramifications for resetting Germany’s moral compass.  I haven’t read it yet but the word is it caught Director Meyer’s and the Americans’ attention
as well.  Cynically speaking, you could say Breiter’s been brought here to appease the American authorities, allay their concerns about the new TH curriculum.  Actually, I wouldn’t say this to most of my friends at all, especially not Paul-Friedl, who’s not a bad egg but can sound off about the innocence of the German peoples, to use his stupid phrase, but I for one am looking forward to Breiter’s course.  I need and want help with some tough questions.”

“Doesn’t everybody,” I could only add.

“So, see you in his course, then.  Can’t graduate without it is not a bad reason to show up, huh?”

Klaus had to leave and I had enough to ponder.  I jumped up on my bunk, turned the one floor lamp my way, and began looking over the courses I’d been advised to take.  Six seemed like

quite a load, two more than I was used to, but apparently two were abbreviated lab sessions as follow-ups to lectures.  Besides Breiter’s course only one other really stood out – the others seemed pretty basic math and chem stuff I felt I could manage given the course descriptions, and the universality of formulas and math lingo: Professor Klarner’s course: “Hairs on Our Heads & Other Conundrums,” which would get a mule’s attention, I figured.  The subtext mentioned that we’d be “learning to think across boundaries that normally keep humans isolated, one from another.”  I was hooked!  Just as I switched off the light and turned over for my first night on the three-section straw mattress, I could hear my roomies coming down the hall, singing a folksong I’d been taught in elementary German.  It sounded way too loud, not to mention off-key, and they were marching in step to it, or so it sounded – “Und das heißt…Erika!” followed me into troubled dreams – of German soldiers marching goose-step in a dark wood, but cradling their voices as if in a church choir.