Heaven and Earth
A lot of crazy things happened in October. A few of them had to do with earth and sky. And a few people wished they had solid ground under their feet again.
For instance there was the squadron leader, Pit Kalthoff, 20 years old, a boy from the Quarter, who one bright afternoon flew his ME109 from over the southern mountain all over the town.
He flew lower and lower, over the factory, clearing the top of the keg division by maybe 6 feet. He almost shaved the train overpass, he buzzed over the gardens, rolling the plane from side to side and – people couldn’t believe it – he flew through one of the 13 sections to the Dreizehnbogen bridge. He made his machine head back up into the sky, climbing up over Dohmann’s Hill. He turned, dipped again, and – even the people who saw it with their own eyes could hardly believe it – he retraced his path, coming down off the hill and back through the identical bridge section he had flown through before. Shortly before the tracks he pulled the machine sharply into the air again, came down in a spiral directly over the Quarter, then pulled up and disappeared back over the southern mountain.
Phantom Spormann, Animal Ronsdorf, ThinMan Niehus, Sparks Krach and Sugar Trietsch, who were sitting on Merrick’s wall, heard the machine as it came over the southern mountain. They thought it was a bomber, and so they jumped for cover behind the wall. But then there was no onslaught of explosions.
Phantom stood up again in time to see the ME109 nearly graze the train overpass. He saw the first pass through the Dreizehnbogen. The others saw all the rest as well.
“Must be Kalthoff’s Pit,” ThinMan said. “Couldn’t possibly be anyone else.”
There was no other topic of conversation that night in the bunker.
Grandma Bertram, who sat in her window sunup to sundown, had the last word. “He came down like this,” – she passed her hand quickly from her head to her stomach – “straight off the mountain. I was thinking, ‘He’s headed for the Hill area,’ and I was relieved, but then,” – she shot her hand out from her stomach towards Herta Ronsdorf – “presto, he was already over Pottmann’s pigeon coop.” She wobbled her hand back and forth in front of Lisbeth Krach’s face, then pulled it sharply in front of her own face. “He came directly at my window, grinned at me, headed over my head,” – her hand slipped over her head toward her back. “And he called out after him, I heard every word, ‘Hi Grandma Bertram!’ By then he was over the factory,” etc etc.
Lorenz Fuchs, who had pushed ThinMan’s Grandma from the gardens over to the bunker, said, “A dashing fellow, that Kalthoff.”
But Berta Niehus immediately set him straight on that one. “That’s nothing but nonsense, showing off. You, Lorenz Fuchs, are obviously not completely over your belief in the fable of Supermen.”
Pit’s mother told them over in Bohr’s store that Pit, who had already earned the Order of the Flying Cross, would soon be getting wreaths and medals too.
Four times in the next 14 days Pit Kalthoff repeated his act, each time thinking up new tricks to go with it. One time he aimed between the two smokestacks at the coal plant. He cleared them by about the space of two slices of bread on either side. Another time he flew so close to the town hall that the flags in front of it whipped against their flagpoles with a sound something like machine gun fire. The fourth time he practically crashed into the track switching booth.
A few days later he was shot down over Aachen. He managed to make it down alive. But, explained his half-proud, half-disappointed mother to the others in Bohr’s store, he was missing both legs and part of his behind.
Gerda Bertenkaemper also fell to the ground, the bleach-bottle blond with her generous tits.
For years she had been a source of irritation to all the women in the Quarter, since many men there wanted to screw around with her. They talked about it often amongst themselves, bragged about having done it, even. Undoubtedly a few of them really had.
Gerda’s husband, a short stout one he was, who went by the name of Gottlieb – an unusual name in those parts – had been a soldier since way back in ’39 already. He came home on leave once a year at the most. And that of course was way too seldom for this woman. In the meantime she almost always had a night visitor around, who usually stayed all day as well.
Since Gerda Bertenkaemper wasn’t interested in anything else in the world besides having a man standing, sitting, or lying in her vicinity, it of course did not matter to her one bit, to whom the man might belong.
“She’s not exactly easy to be with,” explained Animal’s cousin. He had lived with her for a quarter of a year. “All the time fucking, that’s not the worst of it. Even if Gerda can’t get enough of it. But the eternal babble about Love and so forth,” he said. “It’s enough to finish you off.”
Naturally Gottlieb knew nothing about all this. Nobody said a thing to him when he came home on leave. And he always announced beforehand when he was coming back.
Only he didn’t, in October ’44. At that time there were always trains rolling through, full of tired soldiers and aging weapons, this time headed from east toward west, even in the middle of the day. They were attacked by bombers, and many a soldier didn’t make it to the Western front where they were headed, namely to the left bank of the Rhine. Instead they got stopped short, on German soil.
One of these military trains was just coming up on the town when it was attacked. It raced past the train station, then chugged forward slowly and stopped just in front of the factory, on the track closest to Merrick’s wall.
It was late afternoon. Soldiers were pouring out of the cars. From one group of them one soldier broke into a run, scurried down the embankment, short-legged, holding a box under each arm. His jacket was open, his cap sliding off his head: Gottlieb. “Leave till six o’clock!” he cried, beaming. “The train isn’t leaving until six!”
The people who were sitting in their windows waved to him.
Later it was learned that nobody but Lisbeth Krach tried to warn Gerda Bertenkaemper. One of the watch personnel at the Wehrmacht’s larder, a one-armed SS goon, had been living with the bleached blond for several weeks. But the Bertenkaempers’ house was only three houses farther away than the Krachs’. In other words, there was not much time.
Gottlieb, laughing, dashed past Merrick’s wall. “You tigers,” he called to Phantom and the others, “how lucky you are, too young to be soldiers!”
They watched him run past. They turned around quickly so they could keep watching. They saw how he burst into his house. They waited. Everybody was leaning out of the window.
The Bertenkaempers lived on the second floor. There was silence for perhaps half a minute. Then you could hear screams. Then the window on the second floor flew open, and the blond Gerda flew out the window, wearing a long yellow silk shirt. After she hit the pavement with a thud, the screaming was no longer to be heard. Then Gottlieb’s broad face appeared at the window. He looked down at the street. He said nothing.
The ambulance came and picked up the crumpled Gerda. She lived for a couple of hours more. That night Gottlieb went back to his train, which rolled away at six.
“Throwing her own self out the window, that was the worst sin,” Lisbeth Krach said. “The Lord God would never forgive that,” etc etc.
Herta Ronsdorf said, “Nobody would have thought she would do that, not someone who lived so robust a life as she.”
Grandma Bertram smiled. “Red hair,” she said. “She had red hair. I know it. That’s why she bleached it.”
The third who fell to earth was Euken Borbach.
He had grown up to be too short. He was already 17 years old, a shaver, but still no soldier, even though he had volunteered a dozen times with the parachute troopers, who normally accepted even the very short. But no troop would take him on.
He was also a gymnast. He could do amazing turns on the uneven bars, as many cartwheels in a row as you would ever want, handstands on the bar and things like that, such as they did on the 07 team. He was a Hitler Youth too, a wild one even, always shouting enthusiastically during the marching around, when that still existed. In his little room under the attic – Karlheinz had visited it once, to pick up something from him – the walls were covered with pictures of gymnasts. “Little bit too much ass,” Karlheinz explained. So maybe Euken was gay and maybe that was why the troopers wouldn’t take him.
Anyway, in the middle of October, just before the Americans took Aachen, at about nine in the morning, Euken Borbach was standing on the flat roof of Kleff’s tall house, carrying a parachute in a little pack on his back, one sewn from scraps of umbrellas and silk scarves. He was holding a ripcord in his right hand. He was fluttering his left hand as if he were a bird.
“That’s not going to work,” Animal said. “Watch out.”
They squinted up at the roof. Euken was standing right in front of the sun. ThinMan called, “Please, dear Euken, don’t do it!”
“Now!” Euken cried. He leaped, and came crashing down right in the middle of the street. He survived, but was crippled.
The fourth one, Paul Jaenisch, an SA storm trooper who was getting wilder every day, fell from the roof one night as he was gazing through his binoculars. He was following the path of a V2 through the sky, the wonder weapon, which often came down in the Ruhr district, but seldom in London, where it was supposed to.
Jaenisch plowed head first through the roof of Bohr’s horse stalls. He was found with a shattered skull, the binoculars still around his neck.
Others, unimportant brownshirts, switched sides again. Most of them did so simply because they wanted to go on living after the war. In their eyes it was already as good as lost.
But one of them changed character in an entirely different way, a way that nobody would have imagined: Hermann Berger, the block captain and most- hated man in the Quarter.
Berger had a whole lot of strikes against him. The second wave of arrests, in ’35, had come about entirely of his doing. He was the one who had brought little Eva Lewicke to the Gestapo. He had turned in Sugar’s father, and was probably also responsible for Heini Spormann’s third arrest. Reason enough to teach the man a thing or two, if ever the opportunity presented itself. That was clear to everybody, and as good as done.
And then it happened. One afternoon in the basement, Berger unzipped his pants and displayed his cock for Sugar Trietsch.
The Trietsches lived in the same house as the block captain, and Sugar had gone down to fetch coal. She had just shut the door to the coal bin, and turned around, holding a pail of coal in each hand. They were fairly heavy. She saw Berger against the wall opposite her, his face red, panting.
Then she noticed why he was panting. Now, the sight of cocks wasn’t any big deal, neither for Sugar nor for anybody else in the area. The men and boys were proud to let you watch as they pissed, people would laugh, and it was completely normal. But pure cock display, done for no other reason than to make the viewer run away – Sugar had never run into that before, although she had heard about it.
Even that wasn’t such a big deal. So normally under these circumstances she would have said nothing more than, “Put it away, I don’t like it,” or something like that. But with this Nazi swine here it was a completely different thing. “Well finally,” Sugar thought to herself.
And then she said, “My gosh, what a magnificent thing.” Berger, a smallish man, panted excitedly. “Show me once,” Sugar said.
She put down the coal pails. Berger let his pants and underwear fall to his knees. He had his back to the cellar wall. Sugar came up to him, quickly grabbed his equipment with her right hand, followed with her left hand, and without a moment’s delay she plunged her head into Berger’s stomach. With all her might she smashed his balls against the wall.
The block captain howled and howled. He flailed at her with his arms, and as Sugar leaped out of his way, he fell in a heap on the floor. Sugar sprang past the whimpering mass, up the cellar steps, and she locked the door behind her.
Erna Trietsch was not happy. She said, “You should have handled that some other way, just leave him alone and later, some other time, lead him on when there would be some hidden eyes around to watch.”
Animal said, “Oh come on, now, you just don’t pass up a chance like that.”
Since the situation could get to be dangerous now, Sugar and Little Sister moved over to the Spormanns’ for the time being. They decided that Erna Trietsch should have a talk with Berger.
The block captain and his wife lived on the ground floor. Berger was sitting in the living room, which he had converted into a little office. There was a writing table, a picture of Hitler, and a filing cabinet.
“What do you want?” Mrs. Berger wanted to know.
“To talk to the block captain, alone,” Erna Trietsch said.
The woman left the room. Erna said, “Listen, if anything should happen to my little girl, you better watch out.”
Berger leaped to his feet, behind the writing table. “What?” he cried. “Have we come this far, that the Communist should be threatening me? Get out!”
“You shouldn’t get so excited,” Erna Trietsch said as she left.
Everybody waited anxiously through the next few days. Nothing happened.
But then something did happen. Hermann Berger let down his pants again, in the little garden in front of the Siepmanns’ house, this time for Christa Siepmann, who was standing at the window with her mother. Christa had joined the Nazi Party after Jean’s departure. She started howling like a buzz saw.
Berger was picked up immediately. He came back one day later and promptly shot himself, sitting at his table under the picture of Hitler.
“Too bad,” Erna Trietsch said. “We would have liked to have him alive.”
They were all sitting around upstairs at the Spormanns’, celebrating, since it was the 22nd of October, 1944. The radio, with its 4 strikes on the hour, to which they listened constantly these days, had given the report an hour ago that Aachen had fallen the day before. Aachen was no farther away than 70 miles.
But reasons for celebrating never lasted long these days. That evening Herta Ronsdorf came upstairs to the Spormanns’ and sat down at the table, crying. She said, “Teddy is dead.”
They fell silent for a long time. Anna Spormann was crying too. Karlheinz stood up and went to the window. He said, “Our Teddy Thaelmann.”
The others came over later. Someone brought over a photograph of Ernst Thaelmann. They placed it in the center of a red handkerchief and hung it on the wall. The Fascist radio channel had reported that he had fallen during a bombing attack on Buchenwald, on the 24th of August.
“That’s a lie,” Makevka said. “Teddy wasn’t at Buchenwald. He was at Bautzen.”
“So maybe he’s not dead,” someone said.
But the others didn’t say anything. They knew that the Fascists had murdered him.
And the short Mr. Pottmann said, “Those murderers know that their time is about up. Now they’re killing the labor leaders.”
He pulled a paper from his pocket, a copy of a letter. Ernst Thaelmann had written it to a colleague of his in Knast. “Read it,” he said.
And Karlheinz read: 'You, and I, and all our coworkers toward the great goal, must remain strong, firm, willing to fight, and sure of our future. To be a soldier of the Revolution means: to remain unswervingly loyal to the cause, with a loyalty that lasts through life and to the death. It means to show unrelenting enthusiasm for every situation. The flame that encompasses us, that warms our hearts, that fills our spirit, will be with us like a torch on the battlefield all our lives long. True and steadfast, strong in character, and sure of victory in our labors, in this way and only in this way can we assure our destiny, and fulfill the revolutionary duty that our great, historic mission has laid upon us, to help bring true Socialism to the final triumph.'
Phantom played The Little Trumpeter on his harmonica. “Of all our comrades there was none so dear and so good...” the others sang lightly along.
Then the sirens began howling, Full Alarm, and they all moved over to the factory bunker.