The Train

The little boy knew war. It’s not that he was experienced in it, but he’d never known anything else.

It was a mechanical war, a technological war—the first of its kind. The bayonet wars were over,  gone were the ditches, trenches, and sappers—the new tools of war were planes, boats, automobiles—and trains.

There were even rockets that took the parabolic arc of the catapults of Troy to a new, terrible dimension. No more the clash of swords, the galloped charge, and the severed limbs. The new era laid to waste whole buildings, destroyed communities, and, in time, would obliterate an entire city with a nuclear flash.

These things the little boy did not know. But his reality was no less bleak—the pangs of hunger, the cold hand of fear, and the smell of death, as he counted out days in a country led by a madman who started a war he couldn’t win. The proud capital city, once the aspirant to an empire, was now facing destruction, with daily bombings shaking it to the core. A day’s march to the east of its gates, Stalin’s army lay waiting—the Russian bear patiently stalking the black eagle of the Prussians.

The apartment had little food—some black bread, ersatz coffee from acorns, some suspect-looking wurst. Some days, the little boy’s father salvaged a cabbage or two from the allotments off the bombed-out streets, and mother would make watery soup, with just a couple of rounds of sausage.

The little boy kept quiet, mostly living inside his head. In the back room, he dreamed of a different universe, one where peace and order reigned. He carefully placed his model train on the track, and reversed it slowly to hook the tender. Behind the tender, the freight cars stood at ready.

There was something about that train which calmed his soul—maybe it was the way everything coupled together, the rails and junctions on the complex oval track he’d built—or maybe it was the little station, and the houses with the model figures, smiling and waving at the engineer.

For the little boy, the Märklin train set was a life in itself. Even when the aroma of the sausage and cabbage soup wafted in, and his stomach clenched with hunger, he turned the transformer to speed his engine a little more. Tonight, the route was via the eastern junction—there were goods to be delivered at the shipyard.

A host of bits and bobs were arranged on the flatbed cars. Although to you they might look like a lady’s thimble and cotton bobbins, or a few bolts and nails taken from father’s toolbox, they were nothing of the sort—the signal changed, and the black steam engine hauled the train into the yard, slowing as it approached the platform, until all the cars were perfectly lined up.

All around, men scurried to unload the goods: coils of steel cable, sheet metal to be used for the battleship, and yes, an entire diesel powerplant for a tugboat recently commissioned by the harbor.

“Max, zum Tisch!” his mother called again.

The little boy’s stomach cramped some more, as his synapses fired messages where the delicious scent of the Kohlwurst soup mingled with… could it be? YES, dumplings!

He felt his mouth watering, took one last look at his beloved railway and sprinted down the corridor. Max’s father was already at his seat in the kitchen, and as the little boy pulled back his chair, Father coughed  pointedly.

“Sorry!” the boy said. He perched up to the sink and washed his hands.

“Good.” The father smiled. The family held hands around the kitchen table for a moment, and then Max’s mother served the soup; a slice of Schwarzbrot lay beside each plate.

His father raised a glass of water for a toast. “Zum Wohl!”

The family had barely tasted the first spoonful when the air raid sirens started.

At first they shrugged it off. There had been hundreds of air raids over the past years, and well over a million people had been evacuated. There were huge shelters at the Zoo, Kleitspark, Anhalt, and other locations, enough to protect sixty-five thousand Berliners.

In the first years of the war, the Allies struck the U-boat ports, and the industrial valley of the Ruhr—but as Germany itself came under threat, the heavy Lancaster bombers increasingly hit Berlin.

The little boy’s family ignored the sirens for a minute or so, gulping the soup down hungrily. Just then, a massive explosion shook the building.

“Go! Go down NOW! That was way too close.” Father jumped up and ran to the window. “The enemy is right above us.”

Max was petrified. For a moment, he didn’t know which way to turn, then he made up his mind. He scooped up the bread, dashed to his little room, and grabbed the black locomotive.

As he clutched his mother’s hand tight, the bombers’ roar to the east as they banked for yet another pass, he watched women and children hurrying down into the basement. Most of the little girls clutched a favorite doll, and the boys, too, had a keepsake or a toy to keep them company.

“It’s the guidance system plant, that’s what they’re after,” said his father, as he pushed his way forward and through the shelter door. Max watched as his dad waved goodbye. The boy made his way down the cellar steps—this was a local shelter, organized by the building’s residents.

The cellar was dank and dark, lit only with paraffin lamps. All around him, kids sat in silence as the ground above shook. Some mothers said a silent prayer for their husbands, left at the mercy of the ordnance raining from the skies.

Time ticked by as the earth shook with each new pounding—Max stole into his pocket and extracted his last bite of bread. From the Tiergarten Flakturm, the Bund Deutscher Mädel girls aimed the 128 mm guns at the sky—there was no one else left to defend the city.

An eerie quiet took hold of the basement after the Lancasters had spewed their venom into the street above. The basement door was made of heavy steel, and the concrete walls held firm.  The bombers had returned home. “They’re gone,” one woman said. She cursed the invaders, turned the lock, and pushed the door.

Nothing.

“Maybe it’s locked,” someone else offered. Various ladies juggled with the key. They locked and unlocked the door, turned the handle, pushed and shoved. The door remained as still as a sarcophagus.

Children looked at each other in fright. One little girl hugged her dolly tight and began to cry. Soon, more kids were in tears. They might spend hours trapped in this dark hole.

One of the paraffin lamps flickered once, then twice, then abruptly died.

Hours? Perhaps days. Hardly any water. Or food. The women in the shelter had all realized their predicament. A slow death from hunger and thirst, the air gradually getting heavier as the oxygen was replaced by carbon dioxide. They were isolated, completely alone. The infants were crying in earnest. The older kids looked pale and haunted, as fear clutched their hearts, numbed their brains and made it impossible to think.

But not Max. His heart felt steady. He wasn’t a large child, but there was something special about him—a self-reliance that helped him to solve challenges—the first step was analytical, decomposing a problem into its component parts. He knew very well the door was not locked. He held his metal locomotive in his small hands and thought. Around him, panic was setting in.

“We’ll shout,” an older lady said. “We’ll organize a chorus, someone will hear us from above.”

“What about the air?”

“We have to take the risk. Shout, wait. Shout, wait.”

Max’s father paced around the mountain of rubble that was once his home. The apartment block had collapsed, completely smothering the cellar entrance, the ground piled high with concrete blocks, the armature sculpted into bizarre shapes; girders were strewn across the terrain, as if tossed from a playful giant’s hand.  Around him, a couple of dozen other men stood. They were covered in dust and they all looked dazed. The Lancasters had made multiple passes, dropping their bombs along the flight axis to the factory, and then extending beyond it.

The British raid was a resounding success—the industrial plant was razed to the ground. And as usual, there was collateral damage—most of the housing for half a mile either side of the factory had been hit, a good part of it leveled as the planes dropped their incendiary one-thousand pounders along the target line.

The men staring at the rubble shared one common thought—my family is gone. For hours they labored, moving rocks and steel. It was slow work, without machines. Men used pickaxes and crowbars, wheelbarrows and their bare hands, trying desperately to defeat time. Somewhere below the huge piles of debris were sixty women and children, their own flesh and blood.

Had the building collapsed entirely, destroying the basement? Were their loved ones interred under piles of rock? As the time passed, their efforts became increasingly frantic. Every so often the whole group would stop and listen, hoping for one single solitary sound.

Nothing. More digging. Nothing. Fatigue set in, then despair.

A grey dawn was already breaking when the little boy’s father heard a faint metallic sound from below.

Inside the basement, where most everyone had already resigned to their fate, the little boy stood stubbornly at the steel door. In his hand he clutched his black Märklin locomotive. Holding it by the wheels, he struck the door. The metal clanged once more. Although he alternated between left and right, his arms grew very tired, but he never gave up. The strike of the two objects made a metallic sound which conducted right through the door. He bashed the door with fury, crying as his beloved engine slowly came apart.

If I hit hard enough, and often, my father will hear my cry.

He was still striking the steel door when it finally swung open.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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