Chapter 2 – Hero of the Square
Peppi didn’t remember when he had fallen asleep in his mother’s arms or when the fire had collapsed into a few hearty glowing embers clinging to life. They were both still sitting on the couch when he felt the earth tremble.
He pulled his head away from his mother’s chest and blinked bleary-eyed at the fireplace. The vase on the end-table started to rattle and skitter across its polished surface. His mother woke up when the vase skipped off the table and crashed to her polished wooden floor.
Peppi leapt to his feet and cocked his ear. A lumbering drone added to the trembling earth and grew louder until the entire house shook.
His mother stood up slowly, eyeing the ceiling, and protectively wrapped her arms around him.
The rumbling grew even louder and he had to raise his voice for her to hear him. “What is that?”
She clutched him more tightly and slowly crouched down, dragging him to the floor. “I have to see,” he yelled. She clutched him even more tightly so he had to squirm and wriggle with all his might to escape her clutches.
He ran for the door as his mother reached out to him. “No Peppi!”
His hand on the doorknob, he looked over his shoulder to see her staring at him wide-eyed, her hand groping for her only son, desperate to pull him back to her and protect him from a falling sky. “I have to see,” he yelled over his shoulder. The drone grew louder and he finally recognized the sound of a thousand airplanes burrowing through the night sky. As his bones started to hum from the cadence of their engines, he realized that his mother could not protect him. The war had found them and now it was time for him to stand up. This was what he had been preparing for. “Go to the basement mama. You’ll be safe there.” He could see the question in her eyes – was he going to go down there too? Would he be safe?
No, he would not.
He turned the knob and ran into the night.
He looked to the sky, but could not see the storm of aluminum, steel, petrol and bombs that roared overhead, lumbering south to the cities along the Ruhr. Far off towards the southern horizon, he could see the first tendrils of searchlights groping through the sky, blind fingers seeking out the enemy they could not touch. Then, a slash of orange darts sprayed and curled into the sky. Then, the faint thunder of what he knew were flak-88’s reaching up behind the orange trails spewing from the smaller guns bristling along the river. An orange flash and seconds later, the faint report of an explosion descending from the top of the sky.
Then, just over their own little village, he saw a BF-110 groping for the bombers, like a blind man stumbling across a room. It swerved and climbed and lurched, seeking out its prey – a lone hunter against a hoard of savagery it could never hope to stop. Yellow bites of fire streaked out from the fighter, lashed out and ripped into one of the bombers, but it lumbered on, bitten, but not yet dead. The bullets and fire lit the ensemble just enough for him to make out the shadowy silhouette of what he thought was a Lancaster. Or maybe even a Stirling. He couldn’t tell which. But he knew one thing for sure: the Royal Air Force had come in force to rain fire on the Fatherland.
There were so many bombers in the sky now that the engines rumbled with a resonance that he could feel crawling up from the ground and into his bones. Snippets of contrails lit by the searchlights and the frantic BF-110 sniping at the lumbering beasts streaked out behind the bombers in great white plumes, covering the sky with their icy tendrils.
Peppi trembled and then felt a great tingling rise up from his gut and clear through the top of his head. He stuck his chin out and rolled his shoulder’s back as he stared into a sky now filled with war. Fear told him to tremble. At the same time, he finally understood what the Fähnleinführer was trying to teach him about pride when he stood in front of the class and barked out across the room, waving his arms in great gyrations and yelling at them to stand up! A new sensation rippled through him, as if a great hammer had struck against the iron anvil of his soul. The hammer struck again and the anvil rang like a bell – unyielding, steady, ready to embrace the molten from the furnace and fashion it into a blade which no man could escape. The war had finally come to Peppi. And he rose to meet it, staring straight into the blackened sky that dared descend on his country. His home. His own mother.
As he watched the straight lines of the bombers clawing for the horizon, more BF-110s appeared. As if God himself were using the sky as a canvas, they scrawled across the sky in loops and curves as the Luftwaffe rose up to meet the invaders streaking across the German sky. Suddenly, a bright yellow flash leapt from behind one of the bombers directly over the village, then a black trail of smoke as it dipped its wings and swooped down from the sky. First one, then two, then three. More. Within minutes, more bombers than he could count were tilting and then somberly spiraling down. Even so, those that escaped far outnumbered those careening towards the ground. Scant embers shorn from a river of fire, undaunted, pouring now into the heart of the Ruhr, chased and harried by the brave men of the Luftwaffe that Peppi knew were struggling with every fiber of their being to protect the Fatherland.
Along the horizon, the first wave had unleashed its horror along the ground. Flashes darted across the horizon, a great storm of fire puffing itself into existence. Orange tracers hacked away in earnest, filling the sky with spiraling desperation among the sweeping shafts of searchlights. Dead men holding their tormentors at bay, hopeless for as long as they might breathe. He knew that members of the Hitlerjugand Banns in those cities manned those searchlights. Later, many of them would fight the fires that would spill through the streets, gather up in swirling hot winds and feed upon themselves to choke the life out of the city block by block. He knew, too, that brave girls from the Bund Deutscher Mädel worked some of the flak-88 anti-aircraft guns, desperate to defend the citizenry against all hope. Peppi imagined a 15 year old steely-eyed girl wearing her helmet, sitting in the operator’s seat and feverishly cranking the controls to lay her sight against a black sky littered with dancing searchlights while another hoisted rounds into the feeder tray and yet a third pulled the lanyard to send cannon fire into the swarm. Some found their mark, even as Peppi imagined all of this, flashes of victory plucking random bombers from the sky with boiling curls of black smoke.
Peppi clenched his teeth, ashamed at his own inertness, only able to stand on safe ground while his comrades shed their blood to strike back, to lash out, to fight! He pounded his fist against his thigh, enraged at the cocoon of miles that kept him from his destiny now unfolding before his very eyes. How could God just let him stand there while girls – girls! – fought and died as they slung iron into sky?
The streets were now clogged with villagers who, like Peppi, looked to the sky, mesmerized by the great orchestra of looming death droning overhead. How many, he wondered, knew what they saw?
Just as another bomber burst into flames, Peppi saw what looked like a flock of blackbirds drifting from behind it. At first, he thought they were actually birds, burned by the explosion and now dead, falling from the sky. But then they changed shape and looked like thin shards of charcoal. As they continued to drop, he was able to make out new colors – green and gray. A yellow stripe around the noses. God had answered him and destiny now streaked through the sky to lay at his very feet.
Peppi held his breath as he realized what was happening. He looked at the people gathered in the street, still watching the spectacle and yelled out, “Run!”
The first explosion came from behind his own house and he whirled around to see his mother standing in the doorway. Behind their house, the earth rose up in a great plume of boiling yellow and brown streaks of earth reaching for the sky. Both he and his mother ducked, but they did not look away. She stared straight at him, as if by her look alone, she could wrap a cocoon around him that would save him.
The next explosion rocked the earth beneath him hard enough to knock him to the ground. Dazed, he stood up to see people running to any house, shop or building they could find. Others crawled along the ground, screaming in agony. Some did not move at all. The rest dove for the ground and covered their heads, gasping and screaming as the bombs marched through the fountain square, across the village and into the fields beyond. Peppi stood at the edge of the fountain square with his hands on his hips and watched the great plumes of smoke and mud flowering into the air like ancient geysers, wood and shingles flying up with them and then falling back down in swirls of flame and smoke. Hot wind splashed across his face and he stumbled back, but he would not let it knock him down. Resetting his stance and leaning into the fires erupting along the path where the bombs had fallen, all he could hear was the crackling of those fires and the clatter of debris raining back to the ground. Even as the last of the debris thumped to the ground, he was already surveying the fountain square, trying to decide who among the screaming and dying he should help first.
Patrina and her father huddled along a damp wall in their basement, both looking up as the drone rattled through the timbers in their townhouse, down to the basement, across the floor and then shuddered through their bones. Her father clutched her tightly, trying to shelter his only daughter with his own body.
“What is this, Papa?”
“It is the English, I think. We were told to expect this.”
“Bombings.” He eyed the ceiling warily, the unending drone of bombers undulating like great waves crashing against rocks. “But I didn’t think there would be so many.”
“Why have they come for us?” she asked.
He looked into his daughter’s eyes – round and stunned with the cacophony of a war she didn’t understand – because she wasn’t taught how these things worked, like the rest of the children had been. Nor had any of the rest in the Gypsy camp. He cringed as he thought of the tents of the camp, naked against an iron sky. Unlike he and his daughter, the families huddling in those tents had nowhere to hide. But there was no reason for them to fear, not really. He knew there was no reason for the Allies to bomb their humble village which did nothing to fuel the Wehrmacht. The farms down the road, perhaps, but certainly not the village itself. But history had taught him that the chaos of war seldom hid its inexplicable turns from the innocent. Nor did it explain them all that well.
“They’re not here for us, baby. They’re on their way south, to Duisburg, Essen. Maybe even Cologne. Places like that. Not us.”
“Are you sure?”
He looked into her eyes, desperate to calm her gaze with assurances. But he knew better. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking but did not say, at least most of the time. But they had long ago agreed not to lie to each other because it was simply pointless. She would know. So, he clutched her tighter and told her the only truth he knew for certain. “It will be over soon.”
She buried her face against his chest and gripped his shoulder, surrendering to the meager solace he could provide against the rumble that moment by moment leeched the hope of living another day from her soul. Somehow, she knew she would die. Maybe that night. Maybe another. But soon.
He stroked her hair. “Just breathe, baby. Just breathe.”
Just as she was starting to steel herself against the suffocating blanket of fear that closed around her chest like a vice, the ground beneath them shook so hard that they both toppled over onto the floor. A horrendous noise louder than the most furious clap of thunder rattled her bones. Then another, even closer. Dust and bits of wood and plaster shook down from the basement ceiling and they both looked up, holding their breath as they waited for the house to fall in. As they stared, more rounds of thunder shuttled towards them, each one louder until so much dust filled the air that all she could see was her father and a few scant feet of the floor while she coughed and gagged.
Then, the intensity relented as the thunder rolled away from them, south and into the field behind their townhouse. The last one muffled by the trees and then there were no more. The drone of bombers returned, a comparative solace that only moments before terrified her but now flowed through her like the calming hum of a Gregorian chant.
She stood up, brushed the front of her dress and checked her scarf, all to delay a sudden and overwhelming urge to run upstairs and out into the street. She didn’t want to do that, but some demon inside her compelled her. Go look. See. Understand.
She looked down at her father, whose dust-encrusted eyes blinked at her, imploring her not to go. I don’t want to. But I must.
She clambered up the steps, which were miraculously still in tact. Even before she reached the slim entryway into their townhouse proper, her father was scrambling up the stairs behind her. They both stumbled into the front room of their townhouse and looked around. The round table still stood in front of the fireplace. The chairs were still upright. The unlit candle had toppled over, but otherwise their home looked as it did before, except, of course, for the dust swirling through the air and settling into the gathering coat on the floor.
She nodded at him, smiling in the joyous relief that comes from escaping disaster. “Looks fine,” she blurted out. Then she ran out the front door and into the street to see a line of fires neatly marching from the north side of the village, across the fountain square and through the townhouses right next to theirs. One bomb had landed squarely on the townhouse just two doors down from them. They had been spared by a scant few yards.
People stumbled through the street, some bleeding, some in a daze, others, like her, simply wanting to see what had happened. Others rushed up, trying to help. A few crawled. She stared at a man, his legs shredded, clawing at the road like a fish swimming against an impossible current, unable to move. He looked back at her with vacant eyes, bidding a somber farewell he could not stop fighting against, but knew he could not avoid. Then, he was gone.
Her lip quivering, Patrina said, “You said they weren’t for us.”
He pointed at the horizon, where orange, yellow and crimson flashes blew out great round orbs of air and sucked back into themselves to boil up and into the sky. “They weren’t. This was just an errant load mistakenly dropped too early.”
She watched the horizon, mesmerized by the fatal ballet of fire, the streaking coils of bullets from small anti-aircraft guns, the dull flashes from the Flak 88’s and the ponderous fiery cascade of explosions in the sky as they found their marks. Overhead, the bombers still came, an unending wave feeding the frenzy along the Ruhr – an unending spiral of death and screams; she wondered if it would ever stop.
She looked up and raised her hand to draw an imaginary box in the sky.
“Where do they fly?” he asked.
“Left. Right. Everywhere.”
He stroked her hair, then squeezed her shoulders. “It will be alright.”
But she had to see more. So, she ran up the street towards the fountain square and stopped next to a shop on the corner to peek around and see.
There, a chorus of screams and groans and cries lashed out at her as she watched a hive of wounded villagers stumble, trip and crawl. She gagged and then stifled a sob, not wanting the impediment of tears to keep her from seeing what she knew would be important to remember and tell others one day.
So many hurt and helpless, but then she saw him – a lone boy strutting out to an older Gypsy man who had been caught in the open, now groping the empty air, silently pleading for someone to save him. The boy crouched down and tried to drag the man to safety.
Patrina felt something then that she never thought would be possible again. A sweet aching swelled in her chest and she reached out, as if she might touch the boy through the night that stood between them. His face was grimy with dirt and sweat rolled down his face. He bared his teeth, tugged with all his might and dragged the man towards a house. “You can do it,” she whispered, watching the boy strain to drag the man through the medieval light of the fires lapping at the village. “Just a little further.”
Her father looked over her shoulder and whispered in her ear. “Who is he?”
She felt a calm wash over her, then the elating tendrils of a familiar warmth and she had no choice but to shudder and feel the rims of her eyes moisten, grateful to know that a boy she had never met reminded her that the greatest of all things still lived within her – hope.
“I do not know,” she said. “But he is brave.”
Peppi surveyed the fountain square as those that could scampered up the stairs and cowered on his mother’s porch. He smiled grimly, understanding that the porch, or even their house, would do little to protect them if any more bombs fell. Just as certainly, he knew that he would protect them.
A black cloud of smoke billowed up from behind the house and he ran as fast as he could around to the back. The house itself didn’t seem to be on fire, but when he reached the back, he saw the rabbits burning.
Some were still safely inside their pens, screeching and scampering in panic, but alive. Others were already dead, strewn across the mud and grass behind the house. Some were on fire, running for their lives.
Peppi dashed to the nearest rabbit scurrying around the yard, screeching with its fur in flames. The stench of charred rabbit flesh made Peppi gag, but he somehow managed to scoop the rabbit into his arms and hold it close to his chest, smothering the flames. He looked down, relieved to see the rabbit’s eyes blinking. Most of the fur had burned away, leaving a sickly black and red patch of burned skin along its back. But it was alive.
Peppi opened the door to one of the pens that was still in tact and gently placed the rabbit inside. He turned around to see if there were any more that he could save, but all that was left were dead rabbits, some still burning, some smoking and charred, others just lying on the ground, untouched by fire, as if they had simply died from shock.
The rabbits tended to as best as could be, Peppi rushed back to the fountain square to assess how best to help in the aftermath of the bombing – hoping that there wouldn’t be more. But if there were, he would face those, too.
In the haunting light of the fires left behind by the bombs, he could see some villagers crawling in circles. Others just lay on the ground, gasping and bleeding. The closest victim was an older man that looked like he lived in the camps just outside town. He went to the man and with a strength he did not know he had, Peppi hooked his hands around the man’s shoulders and started dragging him back to his house.
The man looked up at Peppi as he pushed along the ground feebly with one foot while Peppi dragged him along the ground. “I have to get back to my shop,” the man said.
Puzzled, Peppi said, “Do you live in the camp?”
The man, still pushing feebly with one foot, looked confused and then said, “I have a shop in Cologne. I have to get home.”
Peppi smiled sadly as he thought of the man tending his long-gone shop, now a farmer who fed the brave men freezing in the east. Men like his father. “I think,” Peppi said in between grunts as he tugged the man along the ground, “that your shop is gone after tonight.”
The man looked around, as if waking up from a dream. “Where am I?”
“You’ll be home soon,” Peppi said. He looked at the man’s legs. What he hadn’t noticed before was that one of the man’s legs had soaked its trouser leg in blood and that its foot was gone. The other leg was peppered with shrapnel, but the man still pushed feebly with his one foot. “Just a little further.”
“Alright,” the man said. Then, his eyes flared in panic and he said, “I can’t stand up.”
“I know,” Peppi said, “You’ll be alright in a little while.” He had no idea if that was actually true, but what else could he say to a man who had lost his foot?
The man’s eyes widened even more as pain finally registered. He started to moan and his face contorted into a grimace that tightened more and more until the man finally screamed.
“Just a little further,” Peppi said.
As he dragged the man out of the street, he caught the eye of a younger man whose legs were gone entirely. The man glared at him with narrow blue eyes as Peppi dragged the older man across the square. The younger man’s eyes never left Peppi as he dragged the old man to his mother’s porch, even as he clawed at the ground, trying to drag what was left of his body to safety. Finally, Peppi had to look away, trying his best to put the image of the helpless man with no legs out of his mind.
When he reached the porch steps, Peppi had to stop. He wasn’t strong enough to pull the man with one foot up the steps. His mother had already sent two of the girls taking refuge on the porch inside to get water and bedsheets. They descended on the man and carefully dabbed at his wounds with the cloth. Peppi felt a rush in his heart when he noticed one of them smiling at him. For the first time in his life, a girl looked at him and rewarded him with the soft glint that can only be seen in a girl’s eyes looking at a boy she suddenly admires.
He felt his mother’s hands on his shoulder, but he pulled away before she could restrain him and ran back into the square to help a woman barely able to stand up and hobble down the street because her leg was shredded beyond recognition.
As he wrapped his arm around her waist and tried to hold her up, he saw one of the older boys from the Hitlerjugand look at him from the shadows and then step out into the square. As Peppi struggled to help the woman back to his porch, he saw another HJ boy step out into the street. And then another.
From across the smoke and fire and moans and shrieks of the wounded, he heard one of the boys call out. “Look at Peppi! Ten years old and already he is in the field of battle! Come on, all of you, lend a hand now and do the same!”
One of the bigger boys ran out and scooped up the man who had lost his legs. Another hoisted a woman who had lost her arm over his shoulder and walked towards Peppi. The boy who had called out rushed up to help Peppi guide his charge across the street and into the waiting hands of his mother and the girls tending to the wounded gathering on the porch.
The boy smiled and nodded approvingly. “You’re brave, Peppi. I’ll give you that.”
Peppi’s chest swelled with both the agony at what had happened to his neighbors and the yearning pride at what he was doing to help them. Both overwhelmed him and he couldn’t stop the shudder that ran through his body from head to toe as tears spilled out onto his cheeks.
“But you need to work on prioritizing,” the boy said. Peppi shot him a glance, knowing that he was being rebuked, but he didn’t understand why. He was the first one to the square. And he was the only one who stood facing the bombs, refusing to cower in front of the enemy.
“Germans first,” the boy said, nodding in the direction of the legless man now being hauled out of the square by one of the other HJ boys.
Peppi surveyed the boy’s face – he looked to be about 16 with a hard jaw and eyes that seemed to lash out at the world with a general sense of fury. He looked exactly like what Peppi thought he should look like. Peppi wanted to say something to defend himself. Then, Peppi looked at the boy’s shoulder boards. He was a Scharführer in the Hitlerjugand proper, which meant he led a full platoon of boys fourteen and older. So Peppi grit his teeth and pushed his resentment back down into his belly.
When they reached his mother’s porch, Peppi helped the woman sit down, turned right back to the street and ran to the next victim, eager to leave the Scharführer behind. He thought of the man he had helped. He once had a shop in Cologne. Now, he worked on the farms nearby to help feed the Wehrmacht. German enough Peppi thought.
Pushing the thought aside, he watched for a moment the valiant German men still chasing the bombers through the cold sky in their BF-110 fighters. He felt a knot in his stomach, furious and ashamed that he could do nothing more than help the people of his village stumble away from the enemy.
The girl had smiled at him. The HJ boy had rallied the rest around him. And while the pride that came from that was deep and burning inside him, it was his newfound anger at what the English had done to his village that drove Peppi on, dashing into the street, dragging each victim he could find back to his house for his mother and the gathering ranks of girls to tend to. It was that anger that drove him on over the hours and into the dawn until all that was left in the fountain square was the lingering smoke, the smell of charred flesh and the haunting promise that war was now his destiny. The anger was hot in his breath and sour on his tongue and all he wanted then was to find the day when he would hold a rifle and dispatch his enemies as they stood across the expanse, waiting in fear of his reckoning. The oath he had given in January, then just a string of words that he was supposed to say, now imbued his soul with the only truth he needed to understand.
The words sang through him, and he would carry them with him as he waited for that first day when he could face his enemy and shoot back. On that day, they would be the ones who were afraid. Their screams would cry out into the smoke-filled air. Their blood would soak the ground. And for generations they would dare not set foot on German soil again.
In the presence of this blood banner which represents our Führer, I swear to devote all my energies and my strength to the savior of our country, Adolf Hitler. I am willing and ready to give up my life for him, so help me God.
copyright 2020 Michael J Lawrence
All Rights Reserved