A fictional short story by John Maes © copyright 12/9/22
Lamar Tindall watched with anticipation as the young man applied the finishing touches to a change of spark plugs on his aged pickup truck. Just a few more turns of a socket wrench remained.
The simplicity of it all made it almost easy to forget that the man bent over the truck was a German prisoner of war. That awareness came roaring back as Tindall noticed the large black PW stenciled on the back of his shirt.
“Thanks, Jurgen,” he said.
“Bitte, you’re welcome, Herr Tindall,” came the somewhat muffled reply from the young German, his head still buried under the hood. “I’m just checking your fan belt and a few other things here and then I’ll be finished.”
Lamar Tindall had been among many townspeople that day to witness the arrival of the first groups of Rommel’s defeated Afrika Corps to the small town of Hiram, Texas. Disembarking from a train, the Germans organized themselves, and began their march through the streets on their way to Camp Hiram, a hastily-constructed compound, mostly of wood and tarpaper barracks where they would be housed for the duration of the war. Though looking tired and weather-beaten from the heat and their long travels, the good military form of their step and parade ground manner impressed the onlookers. Perhaps the Germans were serving notice to their captors that they were still soldiers and expected to be treated that way, Tindall thought.
Now the repair job was complete. Jurgen, sweat-soaked in the summer heat, emerged from the innards of the engine, went around to the driver’s seat, started the truck which groaned, coughed and sputtered to life and then began to run smoothly. He got out, came around to Tindall and smiled warmly while wiping his hands using an already dirtied cloth.
Tindall thanked him again. “You sure are good at that mechanic stuff. I’d been having a helluva tough time trying to take care of this truck and all else around here with only one good arm. It’s gettin’ more and more difficult all the time.”
And, within the next couple of moments, the German saw for himself Tindall’s useless, inert left arm as it dangled in his shirt sleeve.
Jovial knowing that his truck had a new lease on life, Tindall put his good arm around Jurgen and invited him to the house. “Let’s go have a beer and see what the missus is doing. You’re German, you gotta like beer, right?”
“Sounds like a great idea, but…” said Jurgen cutting himself off in midsentence as he gestured toward Cpl. Elmer Davies, the soldier guarding him.
“How about it, Elmer? Can you guys stay, have a beer and cool off a little bit?” Tindall asked.
Davies, a skinny, bespectacled Arkansan, whose uniform always seemed too big on him, was already wincing in skepticism at the idea. “Well, I sure can’t drink no beer – I’m on duty – and I’m supposed to guard this guy.”
But Tindall persisted. “C’mon, Elmer, your gal Tessie lives just up the road a mile or two. Why’nt you go visit her for a little while and let me and my new friend here have a couple of beers?”
Tindall turned to Jurgen with a droll smile. “You ain’t goin’ no place, are ya?”
Jurgen shook his head, remaining expressionless and silent.
The only reason Jurgen was allowed outside the compound to begin with was because the town needed a decent mechanic, a scarcity with most all the able-bodied men away in service. Lt. Col. McPherson was willing to bend the rules a little to help the townsfolk. The camp commander loved all things Texan because he was a Texas boy himself – Waco born and bred – and Baylor educated. So when word spread through Hiram that one of the PWs had car-fixing skills, a clamor broke out for his help. The commander looked kindly on requests for Jurgen to be allowed outside the gates now and then. Groups of PWs were being let out of the compound anyway to work on farms and ranches in the area, and in cafes and restaurants in Hiram to relieve manpower shortages. The idea might be worth a try, it was thought.
Elmer Davies knew well, however, there was one thing about which Lt. Col. McPherson would not have been so approving – that a prisoner had been left unguarded on the outside – even if only for a little while. Yet, that’s exactly what was about to happen. Elmer’s hormones were in a state of rage. Tessie was indeed a dish, they had a thing for each other, and yes, it had been a long time. The soldier sighed and looked at each of the men in front of him as he relented. Well, alright, just for a little while. But remember somethin’, Lamar. If he runs, it’s my ass hung out to dry.”
“I think your ass is gonna be took care of real nice today,” Tindall said with a devilish smile.
Davies didn’t laugh, but instead pointed a finger at Jurgen and adopted a stern manner. “And you, it’s gonna be a lotta trouble for ya’ if ya’ try anything. Got that Mein Herr?”
Jurgen nodded his acknowledgement, calm all the while. “I promise I will go nowhere.”
In the shade on the front porch of Tindall’s house, the two sat in wicker chairs as Sarah brought them each a cold bottle of Pearl. Each took a lengthy pull on his bottle. They sat quietly for a few moments until Tindall let fly with a long, loud, visceral belch.
They could hear Sarah scolding him from inside the house. “Good land, Lamar, can’t you ever stop making that awful noise? It’s so disgusting.”
Waving off the remonstration from his wife, he turned to Jurgen. “She’s always houndin’ me about that. But I always say ‘not bad manners, just good beer!’’’ Tindall guffawed and hollered in knee-slapping style at his own humor.
Jurgen, laughed robustly too – just not quite as boisterously – as Tindall.
With things quieted down again, Jurgen pulled a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped his brow. His features were classically Germanic: a prominent nose, a smooth sculpted face and wavy blond hair. He looked at the sky of rich, radiant blue with a few clouds lying lazily overhead, far too few to relieve them from the searing sun. He tugged at his shirt collar in an attempt to find some comfort. The heat was stifling and the drought had turned the surroundings from what would otherwise be a more verdant expanse into a parched brown terrain. It looked as though nature had overlain the landscape with a gigantic sandpaper tarpaulin. “This Texas is enormous and magnificent, but it is also damn hot,” he said putting the handkerchief away. “And I thought North Africa was bad. I thought I’d seen the last of that weather when we were captured.”
Tindall let out another laugh, not as raucous as previously. “They didn’t tell you guys you were comin’ to central Texas in the summer? All heat and almost no rain?”
Jurgen said nothing and just shook his head.
Tindall asked, “how come you speak such good English? You have the accent of a British guy, but it’s still damn good English – I got no trouble understandin’ you.”
The wicker chair squeaked as Jurgen leaned back and sighed. He laughed before answering. He appreciated the sparkling wit and collegiality of his new-found drinking companion. “I was a banking and economics student in Munich, at the same college where my late father taught English and economics. He believed strongly that English will someday be the language of diplomacy and commerce in Europe, so he taught me early and well. He sent me to a prep school in England for a few years to learn it even better. My goal is for perfect fluency.”
“How’d you guys get captured?”
“I was part of a mechanized battalion. That’s where I learned mechanics, which was about the only good thing they taught me. We were advancing toward El Alamein last November and the British outflanked us, cut us off and surrounded us. There was nothing else to do but give up. They turned us over to the Americans – and the next thing you know we’re on a troopship – then on a very long train ride through America and here we are.”
The PW finished off his beer with a sigh of refreshment, wiped his mouth with his wrist and continued. “And most of us were glad to surrender. We were running out of everything: petrol, ammunition, food, medical dressings, everything. Most all of our supplies were going to the Russian front and we were being left to go to our slaughter with almost nothing. My brother is on the Russian front right now. Last letter I had from him said he was near Stalingrad. I know he would find this place to be a paradise compared to where he is. I certainly do.”
“I’ve heard you Americans call the camp Fritz Ritz because you think we Germans eat and live better in there than you do on the outside,” Jurgen went on. “I don’t know about that, but I do know that I – and most of the others – much prefer being here than being on the front lines someplace.”
Tindall was aware of the derisive label, and to some extent, it made sense. The army seemed to be having no trouble taking pretty good care of its soldiers and prisoners. But there was strict rationing of most everything for civilians. Consequently, some folks found themselves struggling to find enough to eat. Few grumbled and protested, however, chalking it all up to yet another necessary sacrifice for the war effort.
Sarah, as if telepathically demonstrating an example of the home front shortages being discussed, appeared on the porch with another Pearl for each. But she cautioned, “this is all the beer for a while, Lamar. And, please keep your internal gasses to yourself.”
Almost immediately, both men tried to gain the momentary relief to be had by rubbing the cold bottles along their foreheads.
“These camps with all you POWs – even eye-talians and some Japs – are springin’ up all over the place around here. A cousin of mine writes that they have one near him in Oklahoma. Sarah has kin near Ruston, Louisiana and they say there’s a big one there! It’s like there’s thousands of you guys over here. You have anybody left to fight the war?” Tindall asked, again laughing at his own humor.
Jurgen looked out at the landscape for a few moments. If he considered his host’s last question to be rather silly, he gave no indication. He answered in a solemn tone. “Oh yes, Lamar, plenty are left to fight. Hitler is swine and he is taking Germany into disaster, but many still follow him. Most of us here simply want to survive all this and go home to our lives and families someday. But some in the camp are loyal Nazis who want to escape, get across the border into Mexico and somehow find their way back to Germany so they can rejoin the fight. They think there are U-Boats patrolling the Gulf of Mexico watching for escaped prisoners to pick up.” He sneered at the very idea. “What fools they are to believe they would actually be able to do that!”
Tindall studied Jurgen, nodding as he listened to him. “And you,” he said. “You ain’t strikin’ me as one of them arm-swingin’, ‘zeig heil’ shoutin’ kinda Nazis. I’m right, ain’t I?”
Jurgen chuckled. “The only reason I ever thrust out my right arm and uttered that vile expression was I had much fear at who might see me not doing it, and what parties they might tell, and who might pay me a visit afterward. I didn’t want that. One day I was ordered to report for duty. I believe you folks call it ‘being drafted.’ So I had to go. They weren’t asking my opinion about it.”
Now, it was Jurgen’s turn to study Tindall and ask a few questions of his own. He saw a large, roly-poly man with a bulbous, cherubic face to go with the ever-present congenial smile. Jurgen pegged him for a man who wore coveralls just about all the time – perhaps the same pair for days on end. “And, what’s the story of your life, mien freund?” he asked.
When Jurgen added, “any children?” to his question, a look of tension and worry suddenly showed on Tindall’s face. He hesitated and let out a whooshing sigh.
“Yeah, there was, but I can’t talk about it just now,” he said making a head motion to the door where his wife was inside – and within earshot. He had to be careful to avoid any talk of their son, nine-year-old Luther, who drowned in Dordt’s creek where he had gone on a sunny Sunday afternoon to catch polliwogs.
And though seven years had passed since then, Sarah’s psyche remained unhealed. The mere mention of the boy’s name or the circumstances of his fate was often enough to send her into a paroxysm of shrieking, sobbing anguish and grief.
Tindall continued his story. ”Well, I never went as far as you did in school. Only about sixth grade. Pretty much stayed right here in Hiram. Worked a few jobs and then joined up when the last war started.” He again swiped the cold beer bottle along his sweating forehead. “I ended up in France in ’18 and that’s where I got this when I wasn’t even 20 years old.” He was pointing to his moribund left arm. “Got a little too close to where a mortar shell landed.”
Tindall tilted the creaking, sagging chair against the wall of the house. He was now looking skyward. “Ya’ know I hated being in a war. And it wasn’t just the crap and the mud and the rats in the trenches, and being dirty and hungry all the time. I hated having to shoot at people and trying to kill ‘em.”
Jurgen gave a knowing nod and a soft reply. “I liked it not either.” No sooner had he finished that sentence then he cursed himself silently for having botched its wording. He knew his command of English was good and getting better all the time, but he wanted perfect fluency, because his father expected it. Even after the death of Professor Ernst Walthern in a fire-bombing raid during a visit to Hanover a few months before, Jurgen continued striving for that perfection.
Resolving silently to do better and promising his father a renewed effort, he listened to the rest of Tindall’s story.
“We’d sit in them damn trenches,” the Texan went on, “and sometimes us and the Germans would only be a hundred yards apart – a few times even less than that – and we could see each other – I mean each other’s faces! I remember there was one fella over there – we’d eyeball each other once in a while. We even waved at each other a coupla times but didn’t fire. We coulda blown each other’s heads off but we didn’t fire.” He leaned forward, his girth bringing the chair back down to the floor of the porch with a thud.
“Ya’ know, I never forgot that fella. I used to wonder about him. I still do. Ya see, I liked huntin’ and fishin’ and thought, well maybe he did too. And maybe – if we weren’t here in this damn war – we coulda gone huntin’ and fishin’ together – and maybe drink some beer after. But here we were in this lousy mess and we’re supposed to try and kill each other.” He took a final lusty pull on the beer bottle, drained the content, then set it down next to him and wiped his mouth on his right shirt sleeve. “Never made a lick ‘o’ sense to me. And ya’ know what? You kinda remind me of that guy.”
Now it dawned on Jurgen. He had wondered why this tall, portly American tried to befriend him so quickly. It had become clear: Jurgen Walthern was the ersatz version of the enemy soldier in the opposing trench years ago with whom Tindall imagined going hunting and fishing. He kept that thought to himself, however, as both men looked up to contemplate a single engine airplane droning overhead. It ambled along, with wings swaying to and fro, appearing to be crawling through the sky.
“S’pose that‘s one of ours? Or yours?” Tindall asked. They laughed loudly for a few moments, before Tindall spoke again. “You want to go back to Germany when this is over, right?”
Jurgen nodded. “Of course. I want to finish my degree, and there is Sigreid. We’re writing frequently and talked of getting married, once I can get home when that sewer rat Hitler is gone. I’d like to help make Germany a better place. But for now I have to face certain realities.” With that, Jurgen reached into a pants pocket and pulled out a folded slip of paper. On it was written the name Frau Zelda Walthern and an address in Munich. He handed it to Tindall. “In case you find out something has happened to me, please write my Mutter, uhm, my mother,” he corrected himself. “Otherwise, it might take months, maybe even years for her to find out. I much want to avoid that.”
Tindall looked confused. “But, why are you so worried about…?”
Jurgen cut him off. “Look, there’s tension in the camp between the Nazis and the rest of us. Even commandant McPherson isn’t aware as to how bad.”
Can’t ya tell Elmer Davies when he comes back to let the higher ups know about it?” Lamar asked.
“That still might not be enough. I think there is fear the guards could be overpowered by the rioters, so the camp command doesn’t want to get them involved. The trouble would take place inside a barracks to attract less attention.”
Perhaps, Tindall thought, the relatively quiet atmosphere surrounding the camp may have been misleading. Many Hiram people – out of contempt or indifference to the presence of enemy prisoners in their midst – preferred to pay little or no attention to what went on there. Tindall had driven past the barb-wired compound several times and slowed down once in a while to peer at the activity inside. There was very little evidence of the tensions that apparently existed deeper within.
He had seen prisoners doing yard work, tending to gardens or kicking around a soccer ball. Once he saw a German sculpting a statue. The prisoners had constructed ornate working fountains on the grounds, and even built a theater where they produced concerts and performances. Sometimes Lt. Col McPherson himself, and his retinue of staff officers, would occupy front row seats. One day, from a distance, he watched an orchestra of prisoners rehearsing, probably for one of the productions. Damn fine musicians, some of them Krauts, he thought.
As those visions replayed, he wondered some more. How bad could things be in there?
The distinctive engine whine and grind of an approaching jeep got louder, rousing Tindall back to the moment at hand. Elmer Davies pulled up in front of the house, his shirt unbuttoned, untucked and his pistol belt on the passenger seat. He didn’t even get out or kill the engine, simply summoning Jurgen with an arm motion. “C’mon Fritz, let’s git goin’,” he hollered.
The German turned to Tindall. “Thanks mien freund for, what you Americans call…your hospitality, Maybe we’ll see each other again.” The two shook hands. Jurgen turned, double-timed it to the jeep and got in. The vehicle then sped off.
Several days later, Tindall again sat on the front porch wicker chair contemplating yet another cloudless and sweltering afternoon. It looked as though nature had added an extra tincture of parched earth coloring to the Texas midsection.
The complete absence of activity about the camp had become conspicuous. On most mornings, trucks and buses would roll by carrying PWs to their jobs in the vicinity. Now, they were nowhere to be seen.
He fanned himself with a folded newspaper. Only a few minutes before, he finished reading a fleeting two-paragraph account of a recent “riot” at Camp Hiram in which two PWs were killed. Other than mention that the trouble was “quickly quelled by guards,” details were few.
He remembered Jurgen’s description of the struggle between the pro and anti-Nazis. Did he know somethin’ was gonna happen to him? Was he gettin’ in fights with them Nazi-lovers?
Again, the familiar gear-grinding noise announced an approaching jeep. Elmer Davies was again at the wheel. He left the engine running but jumped out and ran up to the porch, obviously in a hurry.
They talked only long enough for the soldier to relay some information. Then Davies turned and walked briskly away.
Lamar Tindall bit his lip, then let out a sigh. Feeling for the slip of paper in a coveralls pocket, he rose from the chair and went inside.
There was a letter to write.
John Maes is a retired journalist living in Austin, Tx. A native of Chicago, he writes short stories, short fiction and creative non-fiction. He can be contacted at; [email protected], 224-659-4585. The above material is copyrighted and anyone wishing to reprint, excerpt or redistribute pieces, or the entirety of this story, is asked to contact the author for permission.