Football time in Texas

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I will not permit 30 men to travel 400 miles merely to agitate a bag of wind!

Andrew Dickson White

1873

August in Texas. When you step outside of the house, it feels as though you are walking into an oven. The heat and humidity sap your soul. A mere walk to the mailbox leaves you drenched in sweat. This can only mean one thing. Football season has arrived with the accompanying smell of a freshly mowed field and the smack of pads on the first day of contact (after 5 non-contact practices). The shrill blast of the coach’s whistle mingles with the sound of the marching band practicing nearby. The rules are a lot different than when I was in school. High school teams rarely have two practices a day for ten days before school starts. New rules prohibit that to prevent heat related issues (though that was never a problem when I was in school). But on the first day of practice, all things seem possible. Every team has a shot at making the playoffs or reaching the state championship, or at least they can dream of it.

It is no exaggeration that football is a civil religion in the state of Texas, particularly high school football. It brings people of all backgrounds, religions, and races together. I live in a town where things shut down on Friday nights in the fall when the team is playing. My house is a few blocks from the stadium and I can hear the PA from the stadium from my front porch. I grew up in the Golden Triangle area of Texas (Beaumont, Port Arthur, & Orange) which is often called the football capital of the world given all the professional players who come from there. Truthfully, football provides people an escape from the area, which if like me, you grew up in Port Arthur, you completely understand.

High School ball has been around for well over a century. For many years, the first high school game was reported as taking place in 1894 between Ball High of Galveston and Texas A&M (a college playing its first game). However, 2001 research uncovered a game between Ball High and the Rugbys of Sealy on Christmas Eve, 1892. It gets a bit muddled though, because Ball High played city teams, YMCA teams, and even college teams and the players didn’t actually have to be in high school. Others point to the first game between school sponsored teams as having taken place in 1900 when St. Matthews Grammar School of Dallas took on the Wall School of Honey Grove. Of course, these early games bore little resemblance to those we watch today, more rugby than football and more brawn the finesse. Source

I married a girl from Missouri. She was an athlete in high school (volleyball). I remember when I took her to her first high school football game in Texas. She said “This isn’t a game. It’s a spectacle.” I suppose it is, with marching bands, cheerleaders, dancing girls, and the game itself. Sometimes the half time shows are better than the games. It was quite different than what she grew up watching in Missouri. Growing up she was a bit of a tom boy and can throw a tight spiral and debate the finer points of a 3-4 defense vs. a 4-3 with the best of them. I actually think she’d make a good coach. Actually, she is a good coach having coached volleyball and soccer at her high school. I mean she’d make a good football coach.

Football, like other sports, has the power to bring people together. When I run into a fellow Saints fan, I have an instant friend no matter our differences in background, skin color, or political beliefs. When I meet a fellow native of Port Arthur, we bond over our mutual dislike of Port Neches-Groves High School. With fellow LSU fans, we discussed our desire to “Fire Les! Win More!” and our dislike of Alabama, though with a new coach in Baton Rouge, I guess we’ll have to have something else to complain about. There are many ways to develop self-discipline, teamwork, and to build character. Sport, be it football or softball, is merely one of those ways. If coached and taught correctly, those lessons, not the actual game, will last a lifetime and provide a basis for future success.

So this fall as you watch your favorite teams on the television, try to take some time on a Friday to catch your local high school game. Most of the kids you’ll see on the field will never play again after their final game of their senior season. At least for now, high school football is free from the influences of agents and television contracts. It’s probably naïve of me to still think of it as “pure”, but at least in a small way, it is. Here are the high schools I cheer for:

Port Arthur Memorial (my hometown)

La Porte (where I live)

Anyone who plays Deer Park

Anyone who plays PNG

I would be remiss if I did not end this by saying “Geaux Tigers! Geaux Saints!” I do not have high hopes for a successful season from either of them this year.

My first team. We won the city flag football league championship in 1985. Our coach, back left, was killed in a car accident a couple of days before the championship game. We won it for him.

Hutch

The Wrong Way to Tickle Mary: Music and Memory

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Friends,

I’ve always been a fan of music. I’ve also always been a student of history, thus studying music from bygone eras has great appeal for me. As a lad, I remember watching a World War Two movie at my grandfather’s house. He was a veteran of that war, having seen North Africa, Sicily, France, and Belgium, though not as a tourist. I think the movie was Action in the North Atlantic but I am not sure. There was a scene where the men were singing the (at the time) well known “Bless Em All”. It just so happened that granddaddy was passing through the den at that exact moment. He paused there by the television and then began to laugh. I asked him what was so funny and he said “Son, I know that song well. But that’s not how I remember singing it.” Granddaddy, a man whom I had never heard raise his voice, let alone utter a profanity, then launched into a rousing rendition of “F–k Em All.”

Over time, he also taught me some of the racier versions of other songs along with some soldier songs that were never recorded. His father was a World War One veteran and so granddaddy also knew the more, shall we say, risqué verses from Mademoiselle From Armentieres along the Tipperary parody which gives today’s post its name. Naturally such songs were amended when they were recorded, or in the case of World War Two music, played on the radio. But I fear that we might be in danger of losing some of the actual lyrics sang by soldiers.

Here in the United States, history is heavily sanitized. No one had sex or drank alcohol (other than Prohibition). Profanity was invented by rap artists. Soldiers during World War One and Two did nothing but attend church when not at the front. I think this is in part because some feel that to discuss things like venereal disease and illegitimate wartime children is to attack the soldiers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Understand that our combat troops during both world wars were young men far away from home (often for the first time) who faced the rather imminent prospect of death. Thus the songs they sang had little to do with glory and honor, they left that to the civilians, and more to do with military bureaucracy and the time honored alcohol and sex. Rudyard Kipling said it best when he wrote “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints.

To understand why men might sing “Hurrah for the next man who dies” is to understand how those men viewed the war. To consider the racy lyrics of some of these songs is to understand that wars are still fought by young men (and now young women). Soldiers in the Great War, when they had the time, wanted to snatch what little happiness they could in the short time they might have left on the earth. If they sought comfort in a bottle or the arms of a prostitute, who among you could blame them?

One of the biggest problems I face in teaching my US History survey courses is that students don’t consider figures from the past to be flesh and blood people. The idea that they had the same emotions as we do is difficult to get across to them. Once upon a time our grandparents fell in love and (GASP) had sex! And your grandpa while serving in France (be it in either World War) might have sang a song about getting drunk and doing creative things with a prostitute. So these bawdy songs from the past must be remembered (thought not necessarily played on the radio) because they give us a glimpse into a world that we will never see. And they might just give us an appreciation of how human our elderly family members once were.

And for the record, my wife does not permit me to sing “Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine” at home or in public. Here are a couple of links to some popular WW1 songs as they were probably sung in the trenches.

Mademoiselle From Armentieres

Wrong Way to Tickle Mary

Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine

(Do NOT listen to Three German Officers is you are easily offended. It gave the more famous Mademoiselle from Armentieres its melody.)

Stand To Your Glasses Steady

(AKA: Hurrah For the Next Man Who Dies)

Hutch

 

All Hell Exploded In Our Faces: A “Firsthand” Account of the Battle of Franklin

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Through the travail of the ages

Midst the pomp and toil of war

Have I fought and strove and perished

Countless times upon this star

George Patton

Friends,

The following comes from a dream I first had many years ago. I woke up drenched in sweat. I could taste the gunpowder in my mouth and I could smell the sulfur based black powder on my fingers. I was in a cold sweat but at the same time I felt strangely calm. Over the twenty years since I first had this dream, it still occurs a few times a year. Always the same. I feel a strange kinship with the author of the above verse, General George Patton.  I think maybe he and I would have much to talk about.

I stand in a line of battle, gazing out across the valley. It is a beautiful Indian summer day. The temperature is cool, but not cold. The sun is beginning its descent in the west, leaving a crimson streaked sky behind. A sign of things to come perhaps. I, along with the other men in my regiment, am angry. Schofield and his Yankees gave us the slip down at Spring Hill. I don’t know which of our officers made a mess of that. We were close, so close, to bagging the lot of them. But now the bird has flown. Word has trickled down the line that the Yankees are dug in and waiting for us. Now more good men will die because of some general’s mistake. Unfortunately this is not the first time in this d—n war that this has happened. General Bragg had a particular talent for that sort of thing. Hood has proven himself equal to the task too. Folks say he is a Texan, but I also heard he was from Kentucky. I’m not sure which is true or why that even matters. I saw him a few days back, perched in his saddle with his wooden leg sticking out at an odd angle and his useless arm limp at his side. Hardly an inspiring sight. Now here we stand.

If I crane my neck, I can see the whole Army of Tennessee stretched across the valley, one brigade behind another. I think there’s something like 20,000 of us now. Far fewer than just a few months back. I marched off to war in 1861 in a company of 100 men and a regiment of over 1,000. Now there’s just about 20 of us left in the company, and a few of them are replacements. Our regiment numbers around 350. The sickness has carried off a good number of us, though that number has grown fewer over time. Yankee bullets and artillery have done in the rest. But through it all, we’ve given a good account of ourselves. I’ve already lost a brother and two cousins. And I’ve marched through more states than I can count. We’ve shed and spilt blood in places with names that no one had ever heard of until we died there; Shiloh, Perryville, Chickamauga, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw Mountain, and more that I can’t remember myself. I’ve come close to meeting my maker a few times. A spent musket ball gave me one hell of a headache at Missionary Ridge. Another Yankee put a round through my calf outside Atlanta. Another inch and it would have taken out my shin bone. I count myself fortunate to be among the living. But as I look across the valley, I don’t know for how much longer.

Two places down in the ranks, Charles O’Neill, an Irishmen, is performing his usual pre-battle ritual of entertaining those around him with a ribald tale of lewd conduct in a New Orleans brothel. He does this before every fight. I guess it calms his nerves. Behind me, our resident expert on tactics, Haywood Galloway is prattling on about our chances for success. When he boasts that we will drive the heathen Yankee into the Harpeth River in a half hour’s time, I turn and remind him that he also said that we would never lose Atlanta. He admits that he was mistaken as to that point but reminds me that we met the Yanks at Kennesaw Mountain and “smote them hip and thigh.” Henry Ferguson, the man on my right, hands me his rifle. He steps out of the ranks, bends over, and vomits the contents of his stomach onto the grass. Then he wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his coat, takes his rifle back, and resumes his place. No one says a word to him as this is his usual pre-battle routine. I wish Charles would do more vomiting and less talking.

I can no longer remember why I enlisted. They tell us we are fighting for “The Cause” but no one seems clear on what that cause is anymore. My family never had no money. We scratched out a living but we ain’t exactly in high cotton. The d—n planters look down on us just as they do their slaves. You ask me, I’d trade most plantation owners for a Yankee any day of the week, even if they do talk kind of funny. I’ve met a few of them while on picket duty. They don’t seem like bad fellows. I can’t consider them the enemy since we speak the same language and pray to the same God. I do know one thing, they can put up one hell of a fight if they have to. All that talk about one Southerner licking ten Yankees that the newspapers were full of when the war started has proven to be a lie. No, I can’t remember why I signed up. But I know why I’m still here. I fight for the boys on either side of me and behind me in the ranks. We’ve been through hell on many fields together and I’ll stay with them no matter what. If that means I have to die today then so be it. I can’t give up on my friends. Our battle scarred regimental flag floats proudly above us. I’d die to protect that too, as it is a symbol of the only thing that matters to me anymore, the regiment and my comrades.

Some of the boys are reading versus from little Bibles they carry with them. Others are absently staring into space, lost in their own thoughts, as I am. Down the line, one officer is reading the Bible aloud to his men. His passage is from the book of Psalms. “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall nigh come near thee.” I think maybe he could have picked a better verse. And since I am to the right of them, I can’t help but feel a little nervous. But death in war is random. It is all by chance. One step sooner and you’d have missed the round that hit you. One place to the right of where you stood in line and the cannonball would have missed. I’ve seen the man to my right take a musket ball in the face mid sentence. It could have been me, but I don’t like to dwell on that. So far, I’m grateful for the fact that when it comes to me the Yankees have poor aim.

I hear another regiment singing softly, in unison, with their chaplain leading them. I recognize the hymn but as I was never much on church attendance before the war, I can’t say I know the words.

Oh land of rest for thee I sigh

When will the moment come

When I shall lay my armor by

And dwell in peace at home

Henry nudges my ribs and says “I think that moment has come.” I chuckle and earn a glare from the Lieutenant who commands our company as he paces back and forth in front of us like a caged animal. He is young and wholly incompetent. Part of me hopes that he catches a bullet soon before he gets more of us killed than necessary, though I suppose that goes against my upbringing. And then I hear it, a single cannon shot from behind us atop Winstead Hill. The orders echo down the line. “Shoulder arms.” “Forward march!” Here we go. Behind me, Charles begins to recite a Hail Mary. He does this every time as I am sure he wants to ensure he goes to heaven after telling his lurid stories. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve memorized the prayer after fighting in plenty of battles with him. I join in, silently, just for good measure.

The valley shakes with our footsteps. Each shrunken regiment moves behind their flags and it gives the impression that we march behind an ocean of red. Up ahead of us, I catch a glimpse of what looks like a small unit of Yankees out in advance of their main line. We are going to overlap their lines with ease. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought. “At the quick step!” We pick up our pace. And then it starts. Whooooooooooooooo-eeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Whooooo-eeee! Our yell. I’ve heard the Yanks cheer moving forward, but nothing like our Rebel Yell. Prisoners say it scares the daylights out of the Yankees. With good reason too. As I join in, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. If we can’t drive them out with force, then maybe we can yell them out.

We get so close that I can see the individual faces of the Yankees in the advanced line. They stare at us with eyes wide with a mixture of fear and awe. I hear their officers urging them to open fire. Then all hell explodes in our faces. I feel sudden space to my left but I don’t turn and look. Someone else slides into the place. We quickly fire one volley into their ranks though I don’t think I heard the order to do it. The Yanks turn and bolt for the safety of their main lines. Our officers are yelling at us to follow them and we do, matching them step for step. We even pass a few of them. I imagine someone will be along to gather them up and direct them to the rear.

There is a road that runs through the Yankee lines and they didn’t bother to block it though they erected pretty extensive breastworks everywhere else. The Yanks hold their fire, not wanting to shoot their own men who are running between us and the Yankee positions. We smash into them like an ocean wave. It is mass confusion. Soldiers are running in every direction. The powder smoke is thick and I have a hard time seeing much of anything in the gathering twilight. Suddenly, a phantom group of Yanks looks like they appear from the very ground itself. Screaming like demons from hell they run towards us. For the first time, I feel fear.

My hands shake as I try to load my musket. I manage to get one shot off and hit a young private in the chest. There’s no time to reload. Jesus Christ it’s going to be hand to hand. I hate this. Killing at a distance is one thing, but killing up close is something quite different. A Federal soldier lunges at me with his bayonet. I parry his strike and smash him across the jar with the butt of my musket. The air is filled with the sounds of desperate men. I can hear the screams of enraged men, the shrieks of the wounded which always turn my stomach, and the roar of gunfire. I turn and see a Federal battery preparing to fire into another advancing regiment behind us. First I hear the roar of the cannon. Then I can hear the crushing sound of bones shattering under the impact of double canister rounds. Body parts fly dozens of feet into the air. My ears bleed from the concussion of the blasts.

There is a tug at my elbow. I look down and see Henry kneeling by my side. He pulls at my sleeve with his left hand while he tries to stuff his intestines back into the gaping hole in his stomach with his right hand. I drop my rifle and grab him under the arms. I try to pull him away to the safety of the other side of the breastworks, but as I pull him his intestines snake out of his stomach forming a trail. I set him down. His eyes are glazing over and I know that he won’t be much longer for this earth. I grab the nearest rifle and locate a large Federal sergeant who is kneeling atop our hapless Lieutenant, hands locked around his throat. Oh the temptation to turn away. But it isn’t the Lieutenant’s fault that he is an imbecile. I plunge my bayonet into the Sergeants back and give it a quarter turn to the right. He stiffens and screams as I withdraw it. The Lieutenant scrambles out from under him, picks up his sword, and stabs the sergeant through the neck. He is covered in spurting blood. As the Lieutenant turns to move away, he drops to the ground without a sound. He doesn’t get back up.

As I try to load my rifle again, I see soldiers weeping hysterically as they try to do the same. Some are wandering around in circles laughing, their minds broken by what we are doing to each other. Two officers in the middle of the road are fighting with their swords as if they are medieval knights. But that is officers for you. They always have to be the center of attention. I look to my left and right and notice a few of my company and regiment still in the area. We move to seek refuge on the other side of the Federal positions, facing the spot where we started our attack. The Yanks dug deep ditches there and I think we’ll be much safer.

We keep up as steady a rate of fire as we can over and through the wooden logs at the Yankees just on the other side. But our losses are mounting. Blood is starting to fill the bottom of the ditch. The air is thick with the acrid, sulfuric stench of the gunpowder that smells, I imagine, like hell itself. The coppery scent of blood makes me want to vomit. I gag involuntarily as I try to load my rifle with shaking hands. Some of the men are praying aloud as they go through the motions of firing their rifles. Others are screaming curses at the Yanks, at the Confederacy, at General Hood, or at all three. “God have mercy on us!” I hear from down the line. As I turn, I see the Yanks preparing to fire a cannon down the length of the ditch. Then I feel nothing.

So as through a glass, and darkly

The age long strife I see

Where I fought in many guises

Many names but always me

So forever in the future

Shall I battle as of yore

Dying to be born a fighter

But to die again, once more

Through a Glass, and Darkly by General George S. Patton

Hutch

P.S. I cannot logically explain why I have this reoccurring dream. Or at least not in a manner satisfactory to most people. I do have a decent hunch though……

 

 

What We Forget

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Warning: This post contains graphic black and white photos from the Civil War.

Dear Readers,

Since the summer of 2015, we’ve seen an increase in Civil War related news items. Most of them focus on monument removals or flag debates. Obviously such a national discussion is both relevant and important and I would not seek to take anything away from that. However, for those historians who simply want to focus on issues of race and slavery, I would remind them that those issues were decided on the battlefield. Context matters. The cause of the war matters. But it was decided by young men on bloody fields. Quite a few of those young men were immigrants. To try and separate out the military aspect of the war does a huge injustice to those who suffered and died. Part of this is due to the war the country seems to remember the war. The Civil War has an almost romantic air about it. And by that, I don’t just mean the Lost Cause. Civil War movies have tended to be bloodless (and bad). Where is a movie like Saving Private Ryan to graphically depict the realities of a Civil War battlefield? Maybe we need that reminder. But when we focus only on causes and context, we are in danger of forgetting this, the truth about what the soldiers experienced.

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We forget that when canister rounds struck a line of advancing infantry, body parts flew as high as the tree tops. We forget that Civil War battlefields echoed with the screams of wounded animals which sounded almost human, and the screams of wounded humans which sounded like animals. We forget the sheer carnage wrought on the human body from a Minie Ball as it smashed bone and tissue. We forget the spray of blood from a wounded comrade’s shattered body that drenched your clothes as you fought on with bits of his skin and tissue stuck to your uniform. We forget the odor of the battlefield; palpable fear mixed with the coppery smell of blood, the sulfuric stench of gunpowder, of sweat, shit, and wool. We forget the courage of the Irish Brigade as they charged Marye’s Heights only to be slaughtered and the courage of the Army of Tennessee in their ill advised charge at Franklin.

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We forget the fear and pain of having a limb amputated with a dull, dirty saw as surgeons probed with bloody hands and ungloved fingers. We forget the generation of morphine addicts, made so by their Civil War wounds. We forget the physical pain so many soldiers lived with in their advanced years as they battled arthritis and a back pain. We forget those wounded in mind rather than body who spent their post war years locked in a lunatic asylum, more like a prison than a hospital. We forget the pain of abdominal cramps brought on my dysentery or cholera, more deadly than combat. There is no glory in dying a long, slow death as your life’s fluids leak from every orifice. We forget that for so many young men, this was the reality of their last days on earth.

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We forget the fear of loved ones as they waited for news of casualties following a major battle. We forget the relief they felt to find out their husband or son’s name wasn’t on the list only to feel guilty that they felt such relieve when so many in their community, their friends and neighbors, lost someone dear to them. We forget about the generation of war widows and war orphans. of women struggling to survive on a small pension as they struggled to feed their children. We forget the anguish of communities as their young men marched off to war never to return. We forget the men and women who labored long hours in dangerous conditions to fuel the war machine. We forget the slaves who waited for their day of liberation and hoped they survived long enough to see it. We forget those who opted to free themselves and escaped to Union lines only to be used as a laborer. We forget the immigrants enlisted straight off the boat to fight in a conflict they understood little about.

ewell Gettysburg field

When we reduce history to statistics, we ignore the personal stories. When we talk about the Civil War but we don’t mention the horrors of a Civil War battlefield, we are doing ourselves and our country a great disservice. Two percent of our 1860 population died during the war. It touched every family in the country. For better or worse, the war made us what we are today as a country. We must not, we cannot, forget what transpired during those four long, bloody years. Our national battlefield parks are a treasure that must be preserved for future generations. Just as they talk about the causes of the war, they must also continue to tell the stories of the men who fought and died there.

Hutch

 

Reap the Whirlwind (Pt. 8)

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Friends,

The novel is now around 66% complete. Assuming I am able to keep to my chapter a day writing schedule, it will be finished on Friday, June 30th. This is a good thing because I’m teaching a US History Since 1877 course the second half of the summer, so it is imperative that I have this knocked out before the class starts. For the subject of today’s post, I will discuss the challenges of writing historical characters, but particularly historical characters who hail from countries other than your own.

An Englishwoman. An Irishman. And two Germans. Sounds like a joke, right? But it is actually where my characters come from. Let us consider for a moment the English language. It has a wide variety of accents and dialects. Consider this point as well. Before television, regional accents tended to be a bit more pronounced than they are now. I have no problem understanding Irish accents but I can’t understand a Bostonian to save my life. Writing this into a novel is tough. You want to give the flavor of where the characters are from, but at the same time you don’t want to descend into a such heavy dialect in the speech that the reader can’t understand what they are saying. A bit of this is okay, I suppose, but you don’t want to go overboard. Dialogue is difficult enough to write as it is. But what if your characters aren’t from the same country as you AND they speak a different language?

If you were to read my novel, obviously you will know without me having to tell you that the German characters are really speaking German but I am writing in English. One thing I’ve noticed on this point is that when British authors write German characters, their English sounds British and when Americans do it, their English sounds American. Either is okay, I guess. But remember that when you are talking about historical characters, their speech has to be at least a little reminiscent of the era in which they lived. Don’t put characters using modern slang in a historical novel! Period! Just don’t! If you are in doubt, leave it out!

And what of historical attitudes? This, Dear Reader, is a tough one. Some writers create characters that have such modern attitudes and feelings on issues that they would have never existed historically. Since two of my characters reside in Nazi Germany in 1943, you can see the dilemma. I’ve read tons of World War 2 fiction. I’ve noticed that German characters typically fall into two categories. You have the ardent anti-Nazis and then you have the stereotypical arrogant and evil Nazi villain. Of course both groups existed in Nazi Germany, but what of the others? The people who, while passively complicit in Nazism, simply lived their lives as best they could under the circumstances. One thing I always tell my history students is to never tell me what they would have done if they had lived back then. Everyone is a badass until it is time to be a badass. We have the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment and a the whole weight of history to show us that most people go along in order to survive.

So, where does that leave us? Ursula, my redheaded heroine (patterned on my German wife, I might add) is a member of a resistance cell in Berlin tasked with a dangerous assignment, made more dangerous by an air raid. The Gestapo is trailing her trying to find out more information on who she is working for. She represents Germans who fought back against the Nazis. Karl, the firefighter, is a bit more complicated and I think does a better job representing the average person in Germany at the time. His father was killed in the First World War. Karl joined the Fire Brigade in Berlin at the age of 19 (in 1929). He joined the Party after it was made clear that his failure to do so would bring about his dismissal. As a reservist, he was called to active duty in August of 1939 and spent the next few years fighting in Poland, France, and Russia where he was seriously wounded. After a protracted recovery, he was discharged and resumed his duties with the Fire Brigade.

In Russia, he took part in anti-partisan operations among other things and speaks of executing Russian civilians with a certain measure of regret. He disagrees with the excesses of Nazism but at the same time he states they are the only think standing between Western Europe and the Communists. He is ambivalent about Hitler and the Party hierarchy. Like many residents of Berlin at the time, Karl has quite a bit of cheek and pokes fun (in private) at several Nazi officials. As Karl spent time in the East, he knows better than most what the Nazis are up to. He doesn’t like it, but he considers it a matter entirely outside of his control. There is much to admire in his character; his kindness to children and animals, his devotion to the men he works with, and his dedication to the citizens of Berlin. But at the same time, he has his dark side too. Such a character is, in my opinion, a somewhat accurate depiction of the German Everyman during World War 2. They weren’t all resisters. They weren’t all ardent Nazis. Most fell in the middle.

The problem from the standpoint of a writer is will people be able to care about what happens to such a character? He is neither good nor evil. Just a man trying to survive, though for what he does not know. The book makes no judgement on “good guys” and “bad guys”. In fact, the antagonist that everyone, both in England and Germany, are fighting against is the war itself. Some characters may be more sympathetic than others, but I’ll leave that up to the readers one day. All I can say is that this is a tough book to write, given the subject matter and the amount of research involved. It’s tough, but I’m doing it. Little by little. I’m getting it done.

Hutch

 

Reap the Whirlwind (Pt. 7)

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In celebration of reaching the halfway point of my novel, I am sharing a scene from it with you, Dear Readers. However, I will warn you in advance, the scene may be disturbing to some readers as I attempt to graphically depict a small slice of the horror and absurdity seen in the aftermath of a devastating air raid. Each vignette contained herein really happened in various raids as described to me by those who lived through them. I see no reason to clean it up or sanitize it for the purposes of my novel. So with that caveat in mind, it is as follows:

A young girl sat on a pile of rubble clutching a kitten, eyes wide with terror, under one arm and a stuffed bear under the other. Soot stained her face, except for a thin, pale line under each eye washed clean by her tears. Four teenage Luftschutz boys in helmets too big for their heads and eyes far too old for their young faces stood over the charred remains of two victims, one a baby. Cigarettes dangled from their mouths as they used a shovel to scoop the shrunken bodies from the pavement. They tossed them in the bed of a truck and moved on down the street. The whole area stank from a mixture of sulfur and the sweetened odor of roasted flesh. A line of people shuffled past. Most were either elderly or young women with children. Some clutched suitcases which held the only possessions they had left. No one cried. No one shook an angry fist at the sky. Their faces bore the expressions of a dog that’s just been whipped and doesn’t know why. The stunned silence which accompanied them was deafening. Large fires still burned in the distance, and some of the refugees cast anxious glances over their shoulders to check its progress before they moved on. None took notice of the child, who continued to stare into the sky with blank, hollow eyes. Finally, an elderly woman stepped out from the line and took the girl’s hand. After a brief exchange of words, the girl joined the rest as they moved away to some unknown destination. As she walked away, the bear fell out from under her arm. She continued to walk and did not look back.

Further down the block, a group of uniformed men, some policemen, some firemen, and some military, attacked a smoldering pile of brick and stone with their bare hands. A tall man in the green uniform of a policeman yelled for quiet. He tapped on a pipe which rose from the rubble. It pointed at the sky like an accusing finger. After a moment, the man pressed his ear down to the mound of debris. After a minute of listening, the officer stood and yelled for someone named Fritz. A young boy in a Hitler Youth uniform ran forward. The firemen sprayed his clothing down with water before he wormed his way into the rubble. He emerged five minutes later with a baby in his arms. Dead. One of the soldiers took the tiny victim in his arms and walked across the street. He gently placed the baby on the ground, as though it were a crib, alongside the bodies of ten other people. Some bore obvious signs of trauma, limbs askew, open wounds. Others looked as though they might have been sleeping and bore no outward marks of the savage pressure of a bomb blast which collapsed their lungs. Two had the rosy cheeks consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning. The soldier’s hands shook as he fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette. After several attempts to light it with a match, he flung it away and sank to the ground. His shoulders shook as he buried his face in his hands.

A dog whimpered as it limped down the street. Its ribs showed and the dog kept its tail tucked under his body. Music drifted from one of the buildings. A man sat at a piano on the ground floor, visible to the street after a bomb ripped the façade away. His fingers moved deftly over the keys and a Beethoven melody hung in the air. Nearby, a man sat on the ground with his arms wrapped around a large suitcase. He laughed as he rocked back and forth. A soldier detached himself from rescue work and asked the man if he needed any help. ‘No,’ the man said. ‘I’m taking my wife away from here.’ The soldier asked where the man’s wife was and he opened the suitcase to reveal a charred, shrunken corpse. The soldier tried to take the suitcase away and a brief struggle ensued. The man stood up and when he did, his wife’s corpse fell out of the suitcase and onto the street. ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ he said. ‘I hope you didn’t hurt her! I’ll talk to your commanding officer if you did!’ The soldier shook his head and walked away as the man gathered the corpse and put it back in his suitcase. He staggered down the street. His deep, guttural laughs echoed off the buildings.

Against the wall of a ruined drugstore, a teenage couple copulated furiously as the line of refugees moved past. The girl had her legs around the boy’s waist, her skirt hiked up far enough to expose the tops of her pale thighs. Her ankles were locked around the boy’s waist. She had her eyes closed. The ash and smoke turned her blonde hair a shade of gray. The boy wore the uniform of a Luftschutz worker, baggy dark blue coveralls with an arm band which marked him as a Hitler Youth volunteer. His helmet slid back and forth on his head as he thrust his hips towards the girl. The refugees averted their eyes as they walked past.

Further on, a man clad only in his underwear ran up to each refugee that passed and grabbed them by the arm. ‘Have you seen Ilse?’ he asked. ‘I can’t find Ilse! Please help me find Ilse!’ No one answered. He grew more frantic and ran to a fireman who stood over the body of a badly burned woman. She was alive and screaming. ‘Help me find my wife!’ the man yelled over the sound of the stricken woman’s cries. ‘Get away from me,’ the fireman growled. ‘Your wife is probably dead, like this woman will be if you don’t get away and let me work.’ The man ran down the street, still calling for his wife, as the fireman knelt beside the woman. His hand trembled as he smoothed a few strands of what little hair remained on her head. ‘There, there,’ he said. ‘You’ll be alright.’ Her chest rose as she drew a ragged breath. It escaped her chest with a sigh, and then she was still. The fireman drew the back of his forearm across his eyes and then walked away, his head hung low with fists clenched at his side.

Screams echoed from deep within a collapsed apartment building. Smoke drifted from the stones as a fire burned inside. Two firemen sprayed a single, impotent hose on the debris. ‘Can’t you do something?’ a civilian asked. ‘Listen to them! They are going to burn alive. Get them out!’ One of the firemen turned to him and said ‘With what? We barely have any water pressure. There’s no way to get to them. Don’t blame us. We didn’t drop the bombs.’ The man tried to grab the hose and the firemen felled him with one punch. The other fireman pulled a piece of chalk out of his pocket and walked over to the one remaining wall. He shook his head as he scrawled ’20 Tot’ on the gray surface and the firemen moved on. When the man who’d been knocked down regained his senses, he began to shift bricks around to make an opening to squeeze through. Satisfied he could make it, the man wormed his torso into the hole and yelled to the trapped people that help would arrive soon. No sooner had the words left his mouth than the rubble shifted and heavy blocks collapsed into the hole and left only his legs visible. They kicked once as blood began to seep from under the fallen bricks.

Hutch

Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 6)

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Date: Monday, November 22, 1943

Time: 2230

Picture yourself in the dark interior of a brick lined basement. The stench of unwashed bodies and fear overcomes the odor of mildew. A thin sheet used as a curtain in a corner hides a large bucket, the only toilet available for the two dozen people packed into the small room. Everyone sits on wooden benches. Their ages range from elderly to infants. There are no able bodies men present, as they are all at the front. A few buckets of sand line the floor and everyone wears a helmet, even the children. A radio in the corner keeps up a running commentary on what is taking place above ground. Enemy bomber formations have passed east of Braunschweig. Anticipated target is Berlin. Outside, the sirens howl. Then, antiaircraft batteries open fire, sending sheets of flame shooting into the night sky. And then you hear it, the shriek of falling bombs. Each one explodes with a loud CRUMP which causes your building to shake. Dust drifts down from the ceiling. The bombs march closer and closer. Some of the children start to cry. A few of the adults begin to pray. Will the next bomb have your name on it? Or will it hit the next block?

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Now picture yourself in the sky overhead. Searchlights stab at the sky around you. To be caught in one means death, unless you can escape the cone. This is your 30th mission. If you make it back, you’ll be the first in your squadron to complete a tour in several months. Before takeoff, you learn that some of the other crews have placed bets on your odds of survival. The odds aren’t good. In the past five months, you’ve seen crews come and go. New crews get shot down so fast you don’t have time to learn their names. Two of your own crew died a few nights ago over the same city where you find yourself now. A burning Lancaster drifts across your line of sight. It rolls onto its side and plummets towards the ground, the seven men inside trapped in a fiery coffin. Your bomb aimer, in the nose of your plane, calls out corrections as you reach the target indicators. Left, left. Steady. Right. Right. Steady. Steady. Almost there. A sudden noise makes you jump as your rear gunner opens up on a night fighter. Shrapnel from the flak batteries ping against the side of your plane, like a child throwing pebbles against it. And then the searchlights catch you.

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Now transport yourself 600 miles away. Several months ago, you met a young pilot while he was on leave. Six weeks ago, he proposed and you said yes. When he completes his tour tonight, he’ll be off operations for a while and receive a much safer assignment as an instructor pilot. You know he is flying tonight, and you’ll be married in three days time. As the searchlights catch his aircraft, you are traveling to the small village near his airbase so you can greet him when he gets back. There’s something you need to tell him before the wedding. You meant to do it when you saw him a couple of days ago, but you couldn’t bring yourself to do it. Will he care? Will he cancel the wedding? He seemed withdrawn last time you saw him. And with good reason, he’d just come back from a mission in which two of his crew were killed and one seriously injured. That’s why he got a weekend pass to begin with. His last words when you parted at the train station were “I’m glad I met you.” Hardly the words of a man planning on having a future.

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Let us now return to the city under the bombs. You wait out the raid in a reinforced room on the ground floor of your fire station. In the midst of war, your job is still to save lives. You are a veteran fireman with over ten years on the job. The war interrupted your career and you spent several years on the front lines in Poland, France, and Russia before an injury led to your discharge, aided by the fact that cities needed experienced fire service personnel. You saw the firestorm in Hamburg and its images flash through you mind every time you close your eyes. And now? Now your city is being pounded. As soon as the heaviest bombing passes, you and your crew, one other experienced man and four young women who belong to the Luftschutz leave the station and drive towards the fires burning in the distance. A few bombs are still falling, and as you pull up in front of a blazing apartment building, a bomb explodes just up the block. Shrapnel leaves pockmarks on your truck, but it cuts down four firemen in the street ahead. You can hear the screams over the roar of the flame as you exit the fire engine and go to work. A quick glance up. You see a bomber caught in the searchlights. Black objects tumble from the center of the plane and start their way towards the ground. Towards you.

This gives you a bit of insight into the four main characters in the novel. They all have their own backstories and personal conflicts not necessarily detailed above. I hope that when I am finished, they will become as real to you as they are to me.

Hutch