Two Soldiers at War's End
I PUSHED a thick layer of hay away and crawled from my hiding place to a knothole in the barn wall to get a glimpse of the outside. Beautiful Lake Chiemsee and the Bavarian King Ludwig's castle were just a few miles away.
I couldn't sleep.
The hay had kept me warm. It was freezing cold without a cover and only my crumpled German uniform to protect me. And the moist, month-old underwear didn't help. It felt like cold wet sheets glued to my skin.
''Is the war over?'' I wondered. A week earlier, the German Army headquarters had been disbanded in Lofer near Berchtesgaden on the day Fritz and I arrived there. We had brought messages from the encircled German Army in Czechoslovakia, and had guarded them with our lives on the way. But nobody read them anymore. The generals left in a hurry. ''Was there still anything left for us to do in this war?''
I wanted to make sure nobody had seen us coming into the barn.
Fritz and I had waited till dusk. Then we crawled through an apple orchard and quickly ran to the big hay barn; we opened the squeaky door enough to sneak in. The darkness inside felt safe.
''Did you see the farmer?'' I heard Fritz ask at my side. ''He was in the cow stable. I saw a bunch of American jeeps lined up in front.''
''Nobody will find us in the hay!'' I said. The Ami-soldiers think the war is over. Why should they care about the two of us? They don't even post guards anymore.''
We climbed the wooden ladder to the second floor. From there, we waddled in the soft hay to the farthest end where the small knothole in the board was the only source of light.
Fritz lay down in the hay and fell asleep. Water was dripping from the leaky roof. That's why I couldn't sleep, and I was hungry! My 20-year-old constitution demanded food.
''Two days without food! How can he sleep?'' I wondered. Fritz was older by at least seven years and was more experienced; he had made it through the whole war and was used to it.
Why had I ever imagined a soldier's life was glamorous? Showing off my bravery medals would be exciting, I had thought then.
The barn door below squeaked. Light flickered. Someone came in.
''Hey, where are you?'' a faint voice called. The voice had a Bavarian accent.
''Here!'' I called back, regretting it immediately; I crawled back into the hay. Someone climbed up the ladder. The dark figure was thin and held a lantern. It was an old man. I stood up and the lantern's light discovered me. Without saying a word, the old man wobbled the long way through the hay in my direction, holding the lantern up. When he was 10 inches away from my face, he inspected me carefully.
Fritz pushed the hay off, and the lantern went to illuminate his face.
''I like it.'' The old man giggled. I saw him shaking his head. That was the end of the investigation. I noticed he had a basket at his side.
He placed the lamp carefully on a checkered cloth that had previously covered the basket. After spreading the hay, he silently began to unpack.
''Mountain troops? I knew it,'' he said, briefly looking up and fingering the edelweiss flower embroidered on my right sleeve. A warm glance flickered in his eyes.
''This stuff comes from the American soldiers in my kitchen,'' he chuckled, pointing to the basket.
''I've never seen stuff like that. Egg powder! Just mix water with the yellow powder and you get scrambled eggs. They showed the wife how to do it. It works! Have you seen egg powder before?'' He slowly sat down while balancing the lantern.
''And this stuff here, they called 'Spam.' Looks like ham.''
We inspected it together. The fried meat slices made my mouth water. ''Used my own bread, because their bread is awful!'' He waved his left arm in disgust. ''You can roll the bread and get rubber balls.''
''Fourteen American soldiers are in my kitchen ... young fellows ... nice guys.''
A broad grin covered his wrinkled face. ''I like it,'' he said again.
''You are here and they are there.''
But more came from the basket. ''Chocolate and candies! One of them speaks German, I can hardly understand. 'We can't use it all,' I think he said and gave it to me.''
I spread the Spam on the farmer's bread, covered it high with scrambled eggs, and wolfed it down. It tasted good. The farmer watched us silently feasting.
''I know how it is,'' he whispered and moved closer. ''I was an infantry soldier in World War I. The French caught me in 1915, and for three lousy years I was a prisoner behind barbed wires. They fed us only a watery soup with turnips and a few potatoes once a day. I was always hungry. All day long we talked about running away. But we never did. I am glad you are here!''
Again, I saw this friendly look in his eyes.
Fritz looked up, stopped eating, and reached for the old man's hand. ''Thanks!'' Fritz said, ''I am glad, you know how it is. We'll get home. Food is all we need.''
Casually, the old man said, ''The radio announced, 'Armistice starts at noon!' ''
He lifted himself clumsily, his voice trembled: ''I lost two sons in this war. They were mountain troops like you, buried somewhere in Russia.'' And then he said, turning away, ''still don't know for what!''
Shaking his head in disgust, he grabbed the empty basket, the lantern, and wobbled back through the hay to the ladder.
''Hope you get home all right!'' he called out when he came to the ladder. And once more from downstairs: ''Don't smoke in my barn! You hear me!''
The barn door squeaked and shut. I packed the rest of the bread in the red-checkered cloth.
With first light, I checked through the hole and counted eight American jeeps lined up in front of the farm house. Nobody guarded them.
We discovered a small side-door to the barn and pried it open. We snuck through, then ran past the apple orchard to the dense forest behind. There we felt safe again. Years of war taught us to know directions. We continued walking west.
Through tree foliage I noticed a green field. We left the forest and saw the breathtaking silhouette of the majestic Alps behind soft rolling fields.
They never change. Perhaps the Alps were the reason why I volunteered to the First Mountain Division three years ago. I just loved these mountains!
Fritz took my arm. ''Stay still! I heard something.''
But it was nothing -- the wind rustling leaves.
''Let's get rid of these uniforms. We are not safe in German uniforms behind American lines,'' Fritz said, unbuttoning his jacket. ''Those scarecrows over there might help us.''
Fritz pointed to two lonely scarecrows standing in the field.
I walked to the smaller scare-crow and lifted off its moist jacket. My arms barely made it through the wet, swollen material. The sleeves ended below my elbows. The two holes in the elbow disappeared under my armpit. But around the shoulder the jacket seemed to fit.
''It will air out in a couple of days!'' Fritz said. ''We'll walk home as stinky scarecrows and nobody will bother us.''
I wondered if Fritz realized how awful he looked. The large crumpled hat covered his face down to his nose. The dirty black jacket hung from his shoulders to his knees. I was used to seeing Fritz in his lieutenant's uniform. He had always looked quite distinguished. Now he looked like a live scarecrow! My sides hurt from laughing.
''Don't laugh! You don't look much better.'' Fritz danced around and had fun.
I draped my uniform jacket over the scarecrow's wood skeleton and made a few adjustments. Deliberately, I turned the uniformed scarecrow southward.
''I'd like you to watch the mountains,'' I told him. ''We were once proud mountain soldiers, and I still want you to do your job well. Scaring birds is your job.''
''Today is Armistice, and there is no more war!'' I gave my uniform its last order.
''Do you feel sentimental about the uniforms?'' asked Fritz, now standing next to me.
''Not really. Just sad and bitter.''
We sat down, and for a while longer admired the mountains clouded in a white morning mist.
I remembered my best friends, and that there wasn't even time to bury them. Most were only 20 years old.
It was just Fritz and me now; we walked on ... toward home near Munich.