Thursday, April 21, 2016

Death in the Winter

Dear Readers,

I’ve been doing a lot of research into a particular topic and as a result, I suffered a very vivid and graphic dream two nights ago. It has happened to me before when I am heavily digging into a topic to write about it. This is the dream as best I can remember and it will serve as the opening scene of the future project.. It takes place in East Prussia in January 1945. In the dream, my vantage point was that of Karl. I was seeing things from his point of view. And when I say vivid, I mean I could smell and hear everything. When I woke up my ears were tingling, I was covered in a cold sweat, and my hands were shaking. You might say that I really get into history. As a bit of a preview, my project involves the experiences of a German soldier, a Russian soldier, a female German refugee, and a female Russian soldier. All of them have their own stories.  

Warning: This depicts graphic wartime violence. Do not read any further if you are squeamish about death. You have been warned!

A long line of refuges trudged across the snow. They clutched suitcases and the hands of loved ones as the bitter wind tore into their bones. The lucky ones rode in wagons pulled by horses, but most walked. A few chanced a quick glance behind them as they walked. Behind them they left a world they would never see again. Women carried babies. Mothers held the hands of their children. Elderly men and women hobbled along with legs weakened by age, hunger, and cold. The sound of crying babies drifted across the snow covered landscape.

Karl stood at the edge of a crop of trees which bisected the road. As the refugees drew nearer, his heart began to beat a bit faster. Was she among them? For weeks he’d sought information as his ad hoc unit moved from location to location but none of his inquiries were successful. It was as if she had disappeared. Maybe, just maybe, he might catch at least a glimpse of her now. A curse from behind him caused him to turn. One of his teenage soldiers sat with his head in his hands as he rocked back and forth. Thomas, the only other veteran among the 20 men dug into snow in the tree line, stood over the young soldier and slapped him across the helmet.

”You fucking coward,” Thomas swore. “Get over there and dig. Or I’ll shoot you in the leg and leave you here as a present for Ivan. You know what they do to captured soldiers? Eh? Want to find out?”

“Enough, Thomas,” Karl said. “Leave him alone.”

“But sir,” Thomas protested, “we need all these kids to be ready.”

He approached Karl and continued to speak in a whisper. “Panic is contagious and we are going to have enough trouble getting these bettnässer to shoot their guns.”

“I know,” Karl replied.

The hastily assembled unit consisted of eighteen teenage soldiers, most of them culled from the groups of refuges over the past few weeks. Thomas, a veteran sergeant whose service stretched from France to Russia and back, gave them rudimentary training which consisted of how to operate a few weapons without endangering themselves. Karl, once a sergeant himself, commanded the unit officer. The boys wore uniforms too large for their frames, made small by the poor wartime diet. A few could not wear their helmets as they obscured their eyes. Weapons were almost nonexistent. A few carried rifles and Thomas managed to obtain an MG42 machine gun. Panzerfausts were the main weapons in their meagre arsenal. To work, they would have to let the tanks get close, and Karl doubted if the children he commanded could withstand what he knew was coming.

The sound of engines drew Karl’s attention back to the refuge column. He scanned the horizon and saw nothing. Some of the refuges heard it too and increased their pace. Four specs appeared on the horizon as they grew closer, Karl’s stomach twisted into a tight knot. Aircraft. Russian aircraft.

“Move!” he yelled at the refuges. “Get down. Airplanes! Hurry!”

He gestured helplessly at the sky but the column of people was too far away to hear him. The planes winged over and dove on the column. Machine gun rounds kicked up spurts of snow. Some of the civilians ran for cover while others dove onto the ground and burrowed into the snow. A few stood in shock or defiance. Karl watched in horror as a man stood with his arms folded across his chest as bullets marched towards him. The back of his head exploded in a fountain of blood when one of the bullets found its mark. Each plane released a bomb and the ground shook with four explosions in quick succession. The blasts tossed bits of wagons, horses, and bodies into the air. Karl watched in horror as a woman’s body, lifted by the bombs, split apart in midair. The lower half fell towards the ground as intestines trailed along behind. The planes made one more pass and then disappeared. Silence descended upon the column. No one screamed. No one cried. They simply gathered their belongings and their loved ones who survived the attack and moved on. Karl swallowed hard and suppressed the urge to vomit.

“Bastards,” Thomas said. “Fucking bastards.”

“Just like we did in Poland and France,” Karl replied. “I never thought I’d happen to see it here though.”

“Listen,” Thomas said as he grabbed Karl’s arm.

In the distance, a new sound drifted across the snow covered field. It was a faint rumble which grew louder by the minute. Thomas looked at Karl who nodded. There was no need to speak. Thomas directed his attention to the child soldiers under his charge. Most buried themselves into their shallow fighting positions when the aircraft appeared and were spared the spectacle of the attack on the refuge column, but now they would have to stand against Russian tanks.

“Quick,” Thomas ordered. “Get ready.”

The eyes of the young soldiers grew wide with fear. Their hands shook as they clutched their weapons. A few started to cry. One began to pray.

“Enough of that,” Thomas growled.

When the first tanks appeared, dark objects against the snow, the first screams came from the refuges. They began to run towards the woods as the tanks opened fire with their machine guns and then their main guns. Explosions tossed bodies into the air like rag dolls. As the tanks reached the spot where the column had been when the aircraft attacked, the tankers simply drove through the carnage with little regard for the bodies of those who lay there. One wounded woman, little more than a girl, clutched at the snow with her hands as she tried to drag herself out of the way of the lead tank, with her shattered legs leaving streaks of blood in the snow. She screamed as the tank driver adjusted his course and ran over her. Karl watched as bullets cut down an elderly man with a cane and then a small child who ran in circles calling for his mother.

And then Karl saw her. She ran towards the woods with her blonde hair trailing behind her. Thomas shouted a warning as Karl dashed out of the woods and ran towards her.

“Lotta!” he shouted. “Lotta, look out! Over here!”

Lotta’s face registered shock as Karl appeared a few meters in front of her. She began to run towards him. As the distance between them closed, so too did the bullets. A round tugged at Karl’s coat while another one kicked up snow between his feet. And then she was in front of him. Karl held out his arms and she slumped forward into his chest.

“I thought I’d never see you again,” Karl said as he forgot, for the briefest second, the predicament which faced him. “Lotta?”

She did not lift her head. He placed his hand under her chin and lifted it so that he could see her face. A faint smile appeared as a trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth. Karl heard Thomas shout at him from the woods. Karl picked Lotta up and moved as fast as his legs allowed back to the questionable safety of the trees. Thomas ran out and met him halfway and helped carry Lotta. Once they reached the edge of the woods, Karl placed Lotta on her back and patted her cheek. Her eyes focus on him for a moment and her lips moved.

“What?” he asked. “What is it liebchen?”

Karl placed his ear over her mouth but the words no longer came. He looked back into her eyes and noticed the same vacant gaze he’d seen in the eyes of hundreds of soldiers and civilians alike over the past four years. A hand squeezed his shoulder and he looked up. Thomas stood over him.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Karl nodded and stood. The tanks shifted their focus onto the woods and rounds exploded in the tops of the trees sending shards of deadly branches down onto the men. Some of the soldiers began to scream. The one whom Thomas had chastised early stood and threw off his helmet. His eyes darted from left to right, and then he turned and ran. Karl sighed, pulled his pistol from his shoulder, and shot the teenager between the shoulder blades. His body moved a few more steps before his legs gave out.

“We’ll fight here. And we’ll die here,” he yelled. “Understand?”  

And there you have it, Dear Readers. I wouldn’t call this a dream so much as I would a nightmare and I’m not sure why I had it to begin with other than it fits what I have been researching. Perhaps I should spend more time watching fail videos on YouTube. The above is a first draft and thus is a rough cut. I have not done any polishing to the narrative, so it may be okay or it may totally suck. I have never been a good judge of writing, my own or others.

Oh, and just a reminder that this is my intellectual property and as such, it cannot be copied, reproduced, or duplicated. In other words, it is protected under copyright laws. Just so you know.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.

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