Minna's conference in Munich
Minna's findings were considered controversial back then. In the early 1990s she was presenting portions of her research at social science forums in Toronto, New York, and Stockholm, her department chair pushing for the international exposure prior to publication. A latecomer to academe, she was making a splash with her cross-generational psychiatric revelations. I tagged along mainly as a buffer, providing solace when she caught crap from the mean-spirited scholars, reporters, and embittered camp veterans who at unexpected times infiltrated these symposia. But with each conference she became more at ease about the attention to and wide-flung interpretations of her work. And so we were enjoying the free vacations, brief though they usually were, some in cities I had not seen before, expenses offset by her university. Understandably I had certain misgivings about this invited address, the symposium in Munich.
It felt so strange to land in the Bavarian capital. We had arrived two days before the plenary sessions were to begin, and I made my way south on a little day trip of my own to the medieval village and adjacent mountainside. I sought that rear access to the compound and the tiny clearing where my comrades and I sat out the darkest years of the war. I felt like a trespasser there and of course it was all quite different.
I spy a facsimile of my former comrade
(but I hadn't thought—nor was I close enough—to look for
that telltale thumb)
On the third or fourth morning, as we waited outside the room where she was to speak, a man passing in the corridor drew my attention. Going over her notes, Minna hadn't noticed him. That corridor of the conference hotel led to a soccer-field sized hall where academic textbook and medical and scientific companies displayed their wares. It was full of traffic and, thus, I wouldn't have noticed the fellow myself had he not openly gaped at Minna as he strode past. Minna: my second wife—and this marriage too was skidding toward oblivion—something of an hysteric, she was thirteen years younger than I and, although well past her prime, her looks and figure holding remarkably well. In her youth (photographs I've seen) she's been a "sweater girl," and even in the first years of our marriage people of a certain age likened her to the American film actress Lana Turner. Men stared, they were taken with her. At times this caused me momentary jealousy, mixed with masculine pride I suppose, and a subtle carnality.
My glimpse of him, this man looking Minna over, set off these emotions in me. But there was something else, the feeling I know this man. Perhaps I was recognizing him from an earlier convention. Had he ogled her before? But, no, my sense of knowing him was stronger than that. As much as any visual recognition I felt a surge of adrenaline the moment I saw him. Then it registered. But I knew it had to be someone else. A man who had aged well as he might have had he lived. Even as he blended into the crowd I was questioning it, might he have survived? He was around my age—younger or a bit older, hard to say. The full head of hair, closely shaved face, added to his appearance. Handsome anyway. A confident, maybe even cocksure carriage, could be a ladies' man. Dressed well—I should say overly dressed, suit and tie, compared to the casually attired conferees—yet the suit a bit shabby. Perhaps because of where we were, where I'd just revisited, I was conjuring an old ghost. But I couldn't let it go.
I shot up after him, leaving Minna no adequate explanation. What could I say, I have to pursue this apparition? I would come to her symposium late, or at worst join her there just afterwards. After all, I'd heard her spiel before.
I had lost sight of him and thought he must have been heading for the commercial displays. Hadn't he worn a blue GUEST badge like mine? That vast arena contained aisle upon aisle of small cubicles from which the publishing companies and scientific equipment manufacturers hawked their tedious products. Conventioneers milled those aisles, killing time between sessions or just out of boredom, hoping to be drawn to something novel and stimulating, studying the displays, trying to avoid eye contact with the unctuous manufacturers' representatives. As I wound through the labyrinth I eyed those strollers. Tall, and with the suave manner so untypical of the provincial Austrian, he shouldn't be difficult to spot. But hadn't that fellow been stoop-shouldered? My mental image of him was fading fast, and I was having doubts about my initial judgment. I made through the whole circuit, systematically down one aisle and up the next, almost having done the whole room, and was approaching the doorways where I'd come in and there he was. He was manning one of the end-booths, talking with a conferee. W (I'll call him that for now) was a salesman for some sort of medical apparatus. As I approached them I knew it wasn't he. I thought I saw a familiar light on his face as he cajoled that ostensible client. But no, it couldn't be W. W was a goner. Perhaps there was some semblance to what he might have looked like, had he lived. But this fellow, I could hear, had a plain-folks American accent—an accent that my wife, when in favorable moods, could cleverly mimic. I had been chasing a will-o'-the-wisp. (Only months afterward it occurred to me that I might have taken a peek at his thumb.)
Her session was just commencing or rather, the chair had just finished some preliminary oration and was introducing the first speaker whose topic was "PTSD in Inner-City Children of Central America." I sought a vacant seat in the back. Minna acknowledged my presence with arched eyebrows. She was scheduled second but did not appear nervous. Speaking before professional audiences was becoming old hat. I wondered what she would make of my explanation, if indeed I did bother to explain my abrupt departure to her later on. Minna nearly always went quiet on me, even turned chilly sometimes, when I brought up my wartime. As though she didn't want to hear anything pertaining to it. Given her field of study, I've always thought that quite peculiar.
For years she has been interviewing elderly Germans. Her "subjects" mainly women who were home-front civilians during the war. Administering her psychological test battery, hunting for signs of PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of her elders had been traumatized in both wars. Most notably she has a small but, I am told, statistically meaningful sample of those "turnip shrimps," people who as children were nutritionally deprived through the winter of 1916-1917. Then, in middle age, they endured another collapse of civilization at the end of the Second War. Many of Minna's women were savaged by Russian troops in that black spring of '45. She compares their psychological profiles with those of two other groups (her "controls"): concentration camp survivors, and sex- and age-matched citizens from the neutral countries. You can guess who manifests the worst symptoms—recurring nightmares, self-loathing, panic attacks, chronic depression and anxiety, drug/alcohol/medication addictions, broken marriages and spousal abuses, psychologically disturbed children and, yes, even psychologically disturbed grandchildren.
Her German civilians, their pathologies much worse than the camp victims'. You can see where such findings provoke controversy.
A safe haven for the duration
Afterwards we were invited for cocktails with the session chair and the other panelists. They were all high in the buzz and afterglow of their presentations, which had gone really well. My wife, in her giddiness, boasting of a possible book deal. I sat, odd man out in their little wheel of jubilation, nodding sociably here and there, my thoughts elsewhere. Just the previous day (just yesterday, I had to remind myself) I'd been to the old haunts. Certain village landmarks looked the same, yet were not the same. A building I thought might have been Krause's market now housed a dingy snack bar and video-game emporium. And when I drove over to the hillside it were as though the whole universe had changed. I had finally reassured myself that I was looking at the right places, but the landscape and even the mountain silhouettes were foreign to me. I don't know why I would have expected it to be otherwise.
Blind beginner's luck to have been stationed there. We were bottom echelon sentries, trained as soldiers but could hardly consider ourselves that. Nebelsoldaten, "fog soldiers," some of the villagers called us, for the barrels of pressurized camouflaging agent we maintained and—at threat of an air raid—discharged. Gate keepers. Yet look at whose backyard we guarded. I had seen him twice. Twice he passed through our station on that gravel road unfit for touring cars. Once he glanced my way and raised his hand. I'd been almost too paralyzed by it to respond, but guess I had responded all right. I could not wait to tell Crystl I had seen him. The messiah and I had exchanged salutes, one corporal to another. Crystl Krause: the food merchant's daughter. Once and sometimes twice a week she came through on her pony-cart carrying fresh dairy, produce, breads and pastries. A voluptuous gal with whom I, barely out of my teens, was smitten. My comrades knew of my infatuation and chided me for my diffidence in her presence.
Our station was the first, bottom-most port for such backdoor type deliveries. The compound per se—the Berghof—was 307 meters elevation above. Below us, the village was close enough that we heard its church-bells and clock chimes, and caught the homey scents from its wood-fires and occasionally from the bäckerie. There were always two of us on duty. Two of everything: two stoves—kerosene against the cold, butane for boiling tea-water; two submachine guns racked above the tiny desk (those arms never taken down except for inspections), and a small switchboard with two telephones each with an independent line to central security. After we'd chatted with Crystl, trying not to stare too openly at her legs (holding the reins, her skirt hiked above the knees), she would prod the pony up a series of switchbacks to a second substation, then on to the kitchen at the mountain house.
All this might have been from some scratchy black and white movie.
The next day we flew back to Canada. We live in a central province, a small-university town. Minna's temporal fame and the potential for a book contract attracted feelers from two other universities and a renowned social-research institute. There were discussions about a move. Though our winters are long and frigid I like our town and the apartment house and wouldn't want to leave them. But I had little say in this; Minna's career was paramount.
In that period following Munich I dwelt more and more on that past and my former comrades. Lieutenant Ernst and particularly W were much in my thoughts. I made notes—my reveries—on a stenographer's pad. I believed W dead, convinced he couldn't have wheedled out of his predicament. Up to then I had envied him. The bon vivant, an operator and raconteur. His natural facility with machines and horses. His seductive way with women. He bewitched us all. Late one afternoon at our guard-post, biding time, puffing on one of Colonel F's cigars, he was demonstrating his marksmanship with a specially tuned P38. I can picture him steadying on the targets, his relaxed stance, that misshapen thumb extended along the slide of his pistol as he aligned the sights. We had tins strung on a wire across the brook from the guardhouse. W kept them spinning—pa-blam, pa-blam, pa-blam—one after another. During this impromptu shoot we were interrupted by a junior Schutzstaffel. All brushed uniform (no insignia) and glossy boots, a local pup trying for actual rank. He was on some piddling practice assignment, an unannounced "inspection" of our phone lines or the chemical-fog barrels we tended on the section of road just above our hut. I think the unauthorized gunplay had him intimidated. He gave us the familiar open-hand salute and party salutation. We ignored him except W, smiling grandly, responded "Grüss Gott."
The martinet looked stung. "What kind of greeting is that for a German."
"We are not German! We're Bavarian," W's manner that of a top sergeant dressing down the recruit. His brass. The pipsqueak hopped on his 'cycle and headed back down toward the village. If he meant to report us to his superiors, they—who unlike us, probably were Bavarian—would undoubtedly have laughed him off. Even the Chief, Bayrisch at heart, might get a chuckle were he ever to hear of the encounter.
Reconnecting with Lieutenant Ernst
A modern university, its wonderful technology. I was helped by a friendly librarian, so generous with her time, perhaps in deference to my age—or was she given to flirtation? We searched directories for Europe, Australia, and the Americas. W's family name—Austrian royalty, supposedly—too common. She came up with dozens of false leads and, anyway, I was convinced he had been scorched off the earth. Finding women is problematic. I did not know Crystl's married name or names. Lieutenant Ernst's surname is uncommon, and I was certain of his middle initial, A for Anton. We found four such listings and for some reason I saved for last what seemed to me the most promising, an address in the U. S., a place called Long Island City in New York State. Maybe I was apprehensive about reaching him. Or that Minna mightn't approve.
< Hello. >
May I speak with Ernst, please?
< This is he. >
< Who is this, please? >
I told him, and it took some moments for him to grasp it. We were speaking over brittle lines, extended across a century. Our commandant uttered my name. I cannot deny this thrilled me.
Lieutenant Ernst: we called him that, using his first name with no other officers present. His important duties were up at the compound, oversight of our post a lesser responsibility. Sometimes a week or more passed without a check-in or call from him but we liked it when he came down and hung around our lonely outpost, smoking and hobnobbing. He liked it too. In a way he, W, and I were all of a kin, slight outsiders: Ernst Upper Silesian, W Austrian, I the Sudetenlander. Ernst was a little older than we, and ages more mature. I believe he only wished for us all to come through it unscathed.
W was an enlisted man, assigned to our barracks (although he often quartered elsewhere), favored because he sprang from noble ancestry and, like the Chief, he came from Linz. He was Colonel F's fair-haired lad, a horseman and small arms expert. The sordid colonel was a cavalryman, their ostensible tie. Colonel F was one of the Chief's adjutants. He had wormed his way up to deputy rank by then but among ourselves we, even the lieutenant, referred to him as "Colonel F," a private denigration. F and his protégé W were reputed to be among the compound's top womanizers (this in a setting that teemed with that breed of man). We would see W mainly on his courier runs, issuing documented orders or policies that had already been received orally. He motorcycled up and down the mountainside on his old prewar machine, in snow with attached sidecar loaded with sandbags, wheels fitted with chains. We looked forward to his stops, for the diversion, crude jokes, campus rumors, kiss and tell exploits of young officers' wives taken to hideaways out by the Königsee, and his boorish tattles on the Chief. Lieutenant Ernst had warned him against this last treacherous sport but in Ernst's absence we always egged him on. That morning when it caught up to him we, or at least I, felt partly responsible.
I told him about our trip to Bavaria, my search for the old guard-post, how the compound area was all thickly forested—probably purposely let go to woods to camouflage those haunted grounds. That did not seem like fresh news to him. I told him of my false sighting of W at the conference hotel.
< Did you know that he has passed away? > (What a prim way to phrase it, I thought.)
It's what we'd assumed. Has it been confirmed then?
< I beg your pardon, I'm not sure I follow. >
His disappearance back then, was it just as we thought?
< No no no. Not like we thought. Not like that at all. I know what you're saying, his foolish blunder up on the hill that time. That little operetta in the cook's galley, some serious trouble he made for himself, the insubordinate bastard [laughter]. We were all so sure he'd been taken away and put to the wall somewhere. Wait till you hear how it
came out. >
I thought you had said he was dead.
< Died, yes, but only just recently. Maybe within the past few months. Or maybe a little more than that—I lose track of the time. And you know he did work for some kind of medical supplies company. Here. Nearby. In New Jersey. I believe he was still at it at the time of his death. But I don't know that they ever sent him abroad. >
You're saying he wasn't killed? This is incredible. He survived the war?
< Oh yes. Quite so. And then some. No dramatic finish for our Österreicher. He died of so-called natural causes. In his sleep, the lucky scamp. > (Here he used the word klugschnacker, meaning a kind of cad, hellion, rascal, mischief-maker, wise guy, smart aleck—in German the word seems to connote all of those things.)
May I ask how you found out about him?
< As I said, he lived not too far from here, a little town on the Jersey shore. You see, he and I were in touch since, oh, in the fifties. Or maybe the early sixties. Although not recently. Then his daughter—or I guess she's his stepdaughter—sent a note after he died, and I called her. >
Ernst, I think he must've been the guy I saw in München.
< Could have been, I suppose. It's possible. >
You know something, I'm not completely surprised. So the golden boy ended up peddling medical supplies.
< You can see how he'd be pretty good at it. Told me he was the house specialist for dealing with the lady doctors [laughs]. You knew his background—Linz aristocracy and his father a highly esteemed officer in the First War. And he? The classic errant son. A wastrel. A hedonist, you'd have to say. What a waste of talent. Dropped out of university, kicked out of officers' corps. Nothing more than an errand boy for us there on the hill. But he had his contacts up there, eh? That phony colonel rat-friend of his. >
I don't know why I didn't pursue it. I could have spoken to him easily enough. I should have approached him. His appearance had changed, of course. And his speech. I overheard him and thought he was an American.
< He was an American, Herr Obergefreiter. So am I. >
I know, I…have so many things I want to ask you.
< Look. I'm pleased to hear from you. And I would be delighted to see you. If you're ever in the city, New York, it's very convenient from here. We can take our time and I'll tell you all about it. Like the old days, eh? A little reunion. Let's plan to meet sometime soon. All right? >
He was closing the conversation. Almost as if someone had come into the room, and Ernst didn't want them to hear.
Minna's work had taken her there before and would again. She had a tentative meeting with a book publisher in Manhattan, set for her spring recess. They would evaluate her proposal. I would firm that up with her, and perhaps see Ernst then, in early April. We had left it at that.
I replaced the phone feeling lightheaded having spoken with my commandant.
Had it really been W, that shabby old man coveting my wife?
Mountain house regulars:
the Chief, his mistress, sister of mistress,
sister's fiancé, house physician, et al.
Most campus gossip eventually filtered down to us and we, as much as the native villagers, thrived on it. There was little else to occupy us. We guardians of the hillside played cards, frequented tourist taverns or cycled out to the lake on our days off, and on rare occasions were invited (more accurately, were permitted to attend) some of the hotel dances. In this cultural vacuum, rumors concerning the Chief's intestinal problems reverberated. His gastric juices said to roil his bowels like the fierce electrical storms that blitzed our mountains. The flatulence so cruel at times that Professor M, his personal physician, was feeding him dangerous concoctions for it. "Something dead and decaying down in the root cellar,"—the professor's trenchant diagnosis. Well connected up the hill, W was our messenger for such scurrilous hearsay, some of which, though hardly credible, made splendid listening. He claimed that the boss, not one to miss an opportunity for ridiculing a pet underling, used his prodigious pent-up gases for in-house amusements. "After all he's human, not a god. He enjoys a good prank just like any of us."
From more reliable sources we knew this to be true. Apart from politics, public speaking, war, death, and destruction the boss enjoyed nothing more than a hideous practical joke enacted on one of his minions.
W seized on any tidbit of the great man's mischief like a fog crow after a chunk of fresh road-kill. "Imagine them—that mountain house crowd of toadies—after supper in that great hall, clustered around the fireplace in their easy chairs. They've eaten a huge meal with wine and after-dinner drinks, and it's well past midnight. The Chief holding forth in one of his relentless monologues. Droning on for hours. They're all fighting sleep, praying for it to end. The fat man dozes off, begins snoring softly at first, then louder, louder. No one dares laugh, not yet. The corpulent Professor Doktor, he's the prize ass-kisser in that band of ass-kissing professionals. Everybody else sees him as a quack. Yet the boss trusts him, swallows all that junk he prescribes.
"He sidles up next to the slug and lets fly a long soft one. You know the kind that keeps coming and smells like it's been marinating in there since last Tuesday. Herr Professor is startled awake by the sulfur burst, or by the Chief's proximity. Hears them all laughing and, thinking his master has told a joke, tries to laugh along with them even as he's gagging on the stench."
Anyway, this was the gist of W's yarn. A fascinating storyteller, he could make you feel like you were in that storied room with them. But he laughed too enthusiastically at his own punch lines. That had always struck me as a sign of immaturity. If we were to believe him, the Chief subjected his mistress to nocturnal under the covers furzmusik, and once shot a horrific butane-blue, broken line of flame across the darkened bedroom, scaring himself (a veteran of trench warfare) and terrifying Fräulein B. As W told it, the boss crouching held the candleholder behind his pale cheeks as he expelled flammable gas into the flame, a vulgar experiment gone almost to disaster.
Creative gas passing the joy of his affliction. In the right company and after a hefty portion of black beans the Chief supposedly could pinch out the first three notes of his favorite Bruckner piece, using his sphincter muscle like a penny whistle, although he couldn't control the octave. Its dim side painful discomfort when he had to suppress the terrible urge to let off steam (so to speak) and, of course, humiliating embarrassment when the urge went uncontrolled in formal company.
We were young inexperienced soldiers—naïve, though not so naïve that we'd let all of his absurdities go unquestioned. He swore he'd depicted that flaming boudoir scene truthfully. If true, how could the incident have leaked out? W wouldn't say how, exactly, but shrewdly let us infer a probable chain: Fräulein B informs her sister who repeats the story to Colonel F, her fiancé. F might then have confided it to his adjutant and he, in turn, to our boy. We did not doubt that he was privy to some of what went on up at the Obersalzberg. But sometime early that summer of '44 he disappeared.
I had off the day he came down on his motorcycle, seeking our lieutenant. The front-post man who filled in for me that afternoon said his face was the color of gravestone. The cock of the walk so nervous he could barely steady his hands to light a cigarette. Later we learned of the fix he'd gotten into.
That day I had been looking around Krause's store and elsewhere in the village, hoping to run into Crystl. Her kid brother had been making her rounds, not in the pony cart but in a little three-wheel lorry he seemed all full of himself to be driving. I'd witnessed Crystl at one of the Friday night soirees at the zum-T, a hotel and dancehall above the compound on Hintereck Strasse. We weren't especially welcome but were allowed to attend some of their parties. Except for W who could be affable in almost any social setting we all felt like outsiders looking in. Dressed in the traditional pinafore, but with an overly revealing bodice, Crystl's lovely white mounds nearly spilled free every time she'd tip forward dancing or speaking in someone's ear. Maybe she was drunk herself, laughing raucously, quite out of character I thought, and letting herself be passed around like a bottle of cheap grog. Hurt and disgusted, I left. Back at the barracks, fuming and thinking of her, I slept not at all. Like every man there I'd been aroused by the sight of her.
When, a day or two later, she came by in her pony cart I realized she wasn't interested in me, particularly, but in any of the guys who happened to grab her attention. I'd been delusional to think the attraction was mutual. She was a simple flirtatious girl, vain and superficial. When her brother began making the deliveries he was evasive about Crystl and I assumed Herr Krause had declared the post off limits, not wanting his daughter subject to soldiers' hungry stares. I didn't want her subject to their stares. I was still lovesick and had gone sniffing around for her on my day off.
Lieutenant Ernst saw no easy way out for W. "I told him I could try to intervene, but only in the most indirect way. And undoubtedly ineffectually. He would just have to wait things out, pray that the Chief let it pass."
Let it pass? W must be kaput, we all thought, his fate the same as his flat and blackened right thumb (his only physical imperfection, to be sure) which, in another, earlier moment of carelessness, had been mashed in the breech-port of an experimental MKB42.
Earlier on that morning that he had come, stricken, looking for the lieutenant, he'd been spinning one of his yarns in the kitchen. Up at the Berghof. Telling the kitchen staff about the time, during his rise to fame, the Chief had hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The three of them sitting side by side in a closed Mercedes. They were touring the valley, heading toward Bad Reichenall when, suddenly, Blam-blamo! Baaar-rottt! A thunderous four-stage fart got away from the Chief, lifting him off the cushion. W telling the rapt cook and kitchen workers that the royal couple—on edge anyway, seeing who they were visiting—thought they'd been trapped in an assassination attack. Scrunching down below window level, the Duke clobbered his head on the Chief's knee as he plunged forward.
As W reached the crux of this story, lips of the kitchen staffers twitching at the edge of hilarity for the scene he evoked, he saw a drastic change in their expressions, their faces tightening into something like sour distastefulness. Turning to see what they were looking at behind him, there was The Man himself. In robe and slippers. Practically unheard of for him to be up and out of his bedroom before noon. Fixing W with his cold, pale-blue eyes, the famous stare known to have frozen battle-seasoned generals in their tunics, transforming them, like Lot's wife, into psychological salt. Recounting the episode afterwards the cook, a kitchen maid, and one of the orderlies said the Chief undoubtedly overheard most of the awful fabrication before staring down W and turning away wordlessly.
Striking out in Gotham
Minna and I had been to this great metropolis twice before, so we knew the layout although its underground system still perplexed us. That same day that I walked uptown to meet with Lieutenant Ernst she met with her agent and an editor at a Fifth Avenue publisher's office but, alas, her chances did not look so rosy by then. Things did not look so rosy for our life together by then either. But enough of that for now. In truth I wouldn't have accompanied her there if not for the promised date with Ernst. I very much wanted to see and talk with him but was experiencing a kind of stage fright.
With unlimited time I decided to walk the route, some forty blocks on that sublime April midday. The restaurant he chose was a remnant of the era when—according to our guidebook—that section of the city was an enclave of Czech and German immigrants (some furtive support for the regime, at that time). How fitting Herr Leutnant.
I waited outside on the sidewalk a little while, and then looked in. A timeworn New York dining establishment, narrow and deep, none too clean. The window dirty and fogged from cooking vapors. The cooking was done at a grill and stoves near the front, heavy central European fare, pans sizzling, pots gurgling, two waiters shouting, the cook grumbling. A counter and line of stools behind the grill, a few tiny tables along the wall to the left, the dining room proper up a few steps in the back. All denominations of people within, some with grey heads, but none looking up for me. No Lieutenant Ernst. When a lady at the counter stood to pay her bill I took that stool where I could watch the door. The counterman took too long to remove her plate with its coagulating remains of fried egg. I ordered a bowl of soup to justify my occupancy. When after half an hour Ernst still had not come I asked for a bread-roll and another bowl of soup.
I knew him to be exacting, punctilious. Our lieutenant would not have been late for such a meeting. Before I left I tried his number from a coin-operated wall-phone on a landing midway down a narrow staircase leading to the rathskeller. The recorded message that switched on was a woman's voice in an accent I could not identify.
We returned home, Minna in a fit of depression, the book proposal diplomatically rejected. Her study results—Germans' late-in-life psychic repercussions a half-century after the fact—all too obvious. Stale stuff not warranting book length treatment. Her findings already too well publicized. Ho and hum.
This failure to publish precluded tenure at the university. She would seek employment elsewhere, finally landing a soft-money appointment as a biostatistician in a city hospital in the Midwestern U. S. I did not want to leave what had come to feel like home for me. In any case she fled with a junior member of her department with whom she'd begun an affair. Before they eloped she attempted to repair the rift between us, saying she had sought consolation outside our marriage during a personal crisis. She never intended nor wanted to end our life together. I told her I could not forgive her disloyalty.
A diatribe ensued. Histrionics. "We've been driving in a fog all this time, all because of the war. Him."
"'Our messianic leader,' Ernst used to say. Sarcastically, I assumed."
"Your little war criminal."
"Your little group's. Your 'comrades,' as you love to call them. You all revered him didn't you?"
"I don't know about revered. Feared more like it."
"You—your countrymen—asked for it and look what it got you. Look what he's done, a nobody. How it's infected us all. I'm sure of that."
I had never seen her so agitated. I didn't contest her wild assertions. As if our 'little group' knew anything about anything. Was in any way complicit.
A war bride
After we returned from New York a handwritten phone message, taken and forwarded by our hotel, came by mail. Ernst's wife saying he'd had a mishap, nothing too worrisome, a fall from a stepladder into some forsythia shrubs. Minor abrasions. She'd taken him to a walk-in clinic. Ernst to explain later. Later was to be the following summer, a long apologetic letter. He said he would follow the letter with a phone call but to this day none has come and I have not tried to contact him again. No matter, I know what happened on the mountainside in 1944.
Over the years I've read and reread his letter, neat computer typed pages in and out of the envelope, unfolded and refolded again. I cannot say why I would want to keep those accounts fresh. Especially so that part that reads like a tabloid exposé.
Having been overheard by the boss, the butt of his crude fabrication, W's lot was fixed, that was certain. However, we'd been wrong to assume he'd been executed. Life's pets aren't treated quite so harshly.
The girl in the pony cart had become pregnant. Six decades later this fills me with petty jealousy. (I am also aroused by thoughts of Crystl Krause's indiscretions.) She'd named Colonel F the impregnator. The allegation reached upwards through her father, Herr Krause a wealthy merchant and influential villager. This was a horrendous awkward complication for our slick colonel, who was betrothed to the sister of Fräulein B (the boss's mistress was said to be the true object of F's lust). Now this enormous pickle.
How shall it be handled? Send the wayward girl to northern Italy to have her baby there, discreetly. No, too much chance of exposure. Supply her with a surrogate husband. Yes.
W and his teenage bride were married in a privately arranged civil ceremony in the teahouse, on the Obersalzberg. Crystl's family in attendance, Herr Krause grim, the ladies in tears, W philosophical. The newlyweds assigned to an outpost on the lower Rhine. W finished out the war teaching officers' wives to ride compliant mares and to hit close targets with their Walther pocket pistols.
This was W's account, told to Lieutenant Ernst when the old soldiers were reunited in the States. Lurid stuff about Crystl, of course, vivid descriptions of her intimate habits and what she would do at passion's height, typical W to reveal all, embroidering as he went along. He believed the Chief had arranged their marriage, the Chief forgiving of love's ways, bequeathing that generous break for W and getting Colonel F off the hook (only temporarily, as it would turn out). I gathered that the faux marriage didn't last much beyond Crystl's delivery. W would try marriage twice more Ernst said.
I knew the rest. In mid-summer of 1944 after W's withdrawal our messiah left his beloved mountain bastion. The war, his child, took him north, into the herzland. Never to return. Lieutenant Ernst and I and the others stayed on nearly a year.
Revisiting the mountainside in dreams
I have recurrent dreams of the place, different variations on the same few themes. I am at the clearing and there are new young soldiers who I ask about the cat we fed, does it still come by, is it all right? And about Crystl Krause. (I conjure up Crystl as an attractive young mother; yet even in these dreams I'm aware that she—a woman of large appetites—would have morphed cow-like over the years.) The sentry nods and says something I can't make out. Excuse me, what was that? Then I'm awake, and have lost the thread.
At times I've wondered if I might have dreamt the other. Did I dream all that too? But then there's the proof of the letter. Don't I have Ernst's meticulously typed letter with its neat German-script afterthoughts in the margins?
Oh Canada (Minna out, Hanna in)
I live by myself now in this town that I like and where I'll stay. I miss Hanna and, surprising at my age, continue to have romantic feelings toward her. But that is all done. I could never forgive her sexual betrayal. Besides, I have a new friend, a recent widow, owner of a thriving photography shop. I took my ancient Leica to her for repairs, we conversed at length, and there were sparks. We take it slow, have wine, dinner, picnics. We watch videos of fifty-year-old movies. Go on long walks to our little park where there is a pond and ducks to feed, children at play, joggers, bicyclists, skating in winter. I have arthritic problems. Still we are thinking of buying bicycles, two good Czech-made ones and a kid's for her preadolescent granddaughter. Named after her, Hanna. Young Hanna's paternal grandparents died or were slain in different camps during the war. So I perform the role of proxy. She calls me "Grampy" or sometimes, when I am short on patience, "grumpy-Grampy." Like all worshipful grandparents I carry snapshots of her, and have written this mainly for her to read, perhaps when she is a little older.