2048 Words

First Duty

M. Stanley Bubien

I once subscribed to what I believed a truth, as it were, of war. It could be stated simply: "the first duty of every prisoner is to escape." And in 1942, those very words took on meaning, both real and palatable, for this would be the easiest escape I had ever masterminded.

Total pandemonium applies most aptly to the Amsterdam station upon the hour of my arrival, bunched in amongst a mass of prisoners, some still uniformed, while others like myself, possessing presence of mind and occasion to exchange greys for civilian clothing prior to capture. As we were ferried upon the platform, the sheer roar of the place deafened, and not entirely due to the rumble and hiss of the great engines, but in the raised voices of the multitude, attempting to carry themselves above the din.

The flier to my right, an American I say, stood straight, a stoic expression upon his lips. Two soldiers were assigned to march our ranks as guard, and whenever one passed, this fellow made sure to meet their gaze, never averting his eyes until the sentry's steps took him beyond. It was a contest of wills, and a Jolly good one at that. I would have laid ten pounds on the American, were there a wager, but it was nowhere near sure, for the two Gerrys wore frowns that would have melted steel.

A whistle screamed, and the metallic whine of brakes commanded our attention as the train we were awaiting slowed into the station. Upon its halting, an interval passed, and almost as one, doors flung wide, followed by the red-capped porters laying stairwells against the series of platforms. Yet, instead of inviting us aboard, each signaled within, and in response, a river of people poured forth.

I stood upon my toes to garner a better view, and I could not help but grin, for this mass exiting the trains was undoubtedly destined to clash with our ranks. Oh, what a predicament this would be!

From our rear, orders were barked, repeated, and followed by the thump of boots running to intercept the mass. Several of the officers lifted hands to halt the flow, but the sheer multitude of people refused to relent as they came from the cars. Other soldiers charged in. More orders barked, and hands joined to from a human blockade, a fence of interlocked arms that now was impassible.

Impassible, that is, to those who remained upright. As civilians crashed in against prisoners, separated only by sheer military muscle, we shifted backward, kept from collapse only by the press of those to our rear.

In the shifting, the American and I found ourselves eye-to-eye. My brow lifted briefly and I tapped my palm against his shoulder and said, "Jolly good work with the Gerrys, chap. The rule is resistance. Keep it up!" And, without waiting for acknowledgement, I gave him a shove and ducked into the vacated space. This low, I was out of sight, and I easily slipped below the arms of the nearest soldier when his head turned.

Feigning my best impression of a midget, I shoved my way sidelong into whatever openings I detected. It was slow going, a kind of swimming through this sea of elbows and ribs, all the while attempting progress toward the tracks and yet remaining inconspicuous. I heard much German spoken, curses I did not doubt, but as long such oaths remained directed solely at my person, all was well.

Suddenly before me, beyond only a few remaining layers of humanity, I detected the siding of a railroad car. Adrenaline coursed uncontrollably into my veins, and I quickened my pace, though that is most certainly a relative term. However, in my haste, I brought a boot down upon the exposed toes of a fraulein, eliciting a shriek of pain. Instantly, her companion laid hands upon my jacket, wresting me upward. He had the harshest of words with me, to which I responded wide eyed and swallowing. Nodding was the most I could offer, with a coarse, "mmm hmm, uhh," mixed in, for my lack of German would certainly give me away.

To my discomfiture, his grip tightened, and his demands increased. I glanced about, and flushed at the realization that I had moved scarce meters from my origin, though it seemed like miles; and worse yet, if this fellow went on, he would soon attract the attention of my captors. I raised myself to my full height, then, and mimicking the American, I put on a disapproving expression and looked him square in the eye. When he reached what I deemed the end of a sentence, I yelled, "Ha!" into his face.

He backed off only slightly, but his grip relaxed.

I took the opportunity for what it was and struck his hand away. Leaning hard aside, I forced my way through the remaining bodies toward the end of the platform. Cool air met me, but also a precipice, and as I cleared the crowd, I lost footing and dropped off sideways, and the impact knocked the wind out of me.

I raised quite a commotion with this, as it was the most unfortunate spectacle. And though I hoped to escape the chap who accosted me so severely, he had followed after and now stood upon the edge of the platform showering curses upon my person.

Sucking a painful breath, I rolled over and forced myself to a squat. The train wheel sat before me, and through the gap beckoned another set of tracks, followed by the rise of a separate platform, a ramp, I determined, that led to freedom. I stumbled forward in my first step, yet that was no matter, for I needed to pass beneath the railroad car anyway. My unhappy companion, however, raised his voice all the higher, directing attention my way.

Down the line, a uniformed German leapt off the platform and, spotting me, he cried, "Halt!"

For the briefest instant, I complied, for from that distance, it was unlikely that he could tell I was anything other than an unfortunate passenger displaced from his perch. He lifted his palm to shield his eyes and hunched over as he examined me. In this position, he was unlikely to reach his firearm, so, without further ado, I dove beneath the train and rolled to the other side.

Righting myself, I brushed away the dust and began walking toward the opposing platform. It was crowded as well, though completely devoid of prisoners, and with a smack of the lips, I dared imagine once more the taste of freedom.

I strode furtively, forcing myself to a calm, rhythmic pace, lest I draw too much attention. I covered the slight distance to the tracks. I stepped over the first rail, carefully gaining my footing on a wooded tie, and as I crossed over the second, a single syllable hollered in my direction sent heart into mouth.


This time, instead of obeying, I did quite the opposite and sprinted toward the packed platform, for no hope remained beyond leaping into the midst of that mass and blending in. A glance back told me that my pursuer had garnered three rifle-bearing subordinates to aid in my capture. Jumping up, I caught one knee on the platform's lip as the soldier yelled, "Halt!" once more, following it with other words I could not translate.

Someone grasped my jacket, but before I could flinch away, he helped me up. He spoke to me, but I was too pressed to do more than reply with one of the few German words I knew.

"Danka," said I, and made to press past.

At that instant, just as I was to disappear within these travellers, a crack of gunfire ensued. I almost ignored it, for I could imagine no one firing at a moving target within a mass of civilians, but my helper grunted and leaned hard against me as if pushed. I noticed he held his forearm, and between his fingers, blood was spreading.

"What?" I blurted, and turning to the soldiers, I saw their rifles still raised. My friend had come to rest on his arse, clutching himself and muttering something indistinguishable. Those nearby understood what was happening, and began loudly pushing and shoving away from the danger they perceived.

I felt myself pulled with them, and inspecting my person, I found my jacket caught on someone's belt, tieing me to awaiting freedom. But the soldiers, I saw, positioned their rifles at the ready, and their commander pointed toward me while also raising a black-gloved hand with five digits outstretched.

"No!" I yelled, tugging my jacket. It held fast, and I was being dragged away against my will; to freedom, yes, but at the price of certain death, and not necessarily my own.

The commander lowered his hand.

With a reflexive yank, I rent my jacket in twain. Once released, I jumped from the platform with arms outstretched, coming to rest against my knees.

"I surrender!" I screamed, my vision blurred from the sweat which had dripped from my brow. "I surrender!"

In that aching instant, I imagined the crack of gunfire and the collapse of bodies, an ensuing panic, followed by injury and further loss of life.

But instead, "Englander!" a voice grunted.

Blinking away the sweat, four figures resolved about me. The commander stood directly over me, and methodically unrolled the glove from his fist. Curling his fingers, he lifted his hand in preparation to land a blow on my jaw. Punishment, I guessed, for my denying him the opportunity to have me shot, or to rain bullets upon the innocents.

"If that's how it is," I thought, "well then." I lifted my chin to provide a better target, mentally bracing myself against the blow.

He hesitated.

"C'mon then!" I nodded. "C'mon."

The frown he wore remained unchanged, but as surely as it was day, I saw the decision to spare me spread upon his face. He spoke in German, calling me "Englander" once more, and signaled his subordinates to return me to my rightful place of captivity. A duty to which the soldiers obeyed.

Ah, duty. It seemed to require something from us all, though certainly that brought about conflict, for my duty had been to escape, the Gerry's to capture me; one of us inevitably had to succeed, while the other inevitably fail.

As they grasped beneath my arms, I caught a glimpse of my foundered freedom in the dispersing crowd. Yet there too was my injured friend, staggering under the aid of a worker bearing a white arm band bisected with red cross.

In that vision, I saw more red, and with a sudden burst of strength, I wrested free of the soldiers. And though I collapsed again to my knees, I shouted at the commander, "You bloody bastard! Shooting civilians! Damn you and your bloody army!" And I spat upon his boots.

A white flash exploded in my mind when his blow fell, and the kick in my stomach left me writhing in the dirt until he ordered me righted once more. He had to do so twice to get them to comply, but that they did and dragged me away.

I soon found myself cast into a railroad car full of prisoners. My compatriots caught me as I was flung inward, but I gestured that I was all right, to which they responded by releasing me, though carefully, lest I collapse.

Standing there, I touched the bruise on my brow and winced. It made me wonder who was the real fool here: that bloody Gerry, or myself---so full of pride I had to insult him into striking me. Shaking my head, my gaze passed involuntarily about the car, and in one corner, I spotted a familiar face.

The American remained tall and stoic as ever, examining me. But before I could frown my failure, he pointed at his eye then at me. This he followed by presenting a fist with thumb erected skyward, after which---were I not watching closely, I would have missed it---a half-smile broke his stoic expression.

"What the hell," I mumbled. "What the bloody hell." And shrugging, I broke a grin and gave him a single, painful wink.

Inspired by Lorne Welch, 1917-1998.

Copyright ©1998 M. Stanley Bubien. All Rights Reserved.

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Story Bytes


August, 1998
Issue #28

2048 Words