Christmas and the year ’45 crept closer, but the Americans did not.
People were often talking about that these days, and at night in the bunkers, and also at a meeting that Phantom attended, where there was a map of Europe laid out in front of them, showing the fronts. The Western front was the one of interest here, and right now in the middle of December it didn’t look so good for them and the Western allies.
Stash pointed out where the two Panzer units under Hitler’s General Rundstedt had penetrated through the Ardennen and were headed in the direction of Antwerp. He showed where the ninth and the first armies of the Americans were operating, along with the British and a handful of French soldiers. Everyone agreed that they were just going to have to spend the winter there.
“They can’t cross the Rhine until spring,” the short Mr. Pottmann said. “So we have a bit more to do in front of us.”
“Above all, no more pranks,” warned Stumpe, who was looking directly at Phantom. “The important thing at the moment is staying alive.”
And the first item on the agenda of survival was eating. Things were again iffy in this area.
Phantom and Franz discussed this rather more than once, in the horses’ stall. Franz was almost one of them by now, although of course he knew nothing about the Organization. However, the short Mr. Pottmann had spoken with him, explained a few things, guaranteed him a place to stay, furnishings, the necessary papers if it came to that, guaranteed, and with that guarantee the lieutenant told him everything he knew.
The two other soldiers, harmless youngsters, knew nothing. And the third soldier plus the sergeant-major were driven one night to the train station and put onto a car carrying other soldiers to the front.
So now there were only 3 soldiers left in the Quarter. It was not clear why they were there.
Franz presumed that they were there simply to hold the army’s quarters, perhaps later to blow them up if the order to do so were to come. There were certainly enough explosive materials left stored in them. And they had quarters scattered in quite a few places around town.
So these few troops lounged around and did nothing, just like in Bohr’s stall. The officers lived in a villa on the Hill.
Whenever and wherever the talk turned to the question of where to find food, the officers’ larder at the train station always managed to come under debate.
Franz had been there with the sergeant-major and a stockroom clerk. He had seen all the well-stocked shelves, the jars, tins, glasses, the sacks of flour, the tubs of butter, salted dried meat, the tins of oil in the corners, cartons and boxes still stapled shut, things stolen from every corner of Europe. Franz and the sergeant-major and the clerk were there to arrange the goods for a special affair for the company, and at that time Franz had been able to steal two bottles of cognac. Since he did not drink, he had been able to use these in later negotiations with the sergeant-major.
“You have to have a supply request form, stamped,” said Franz, “with the commander’s signature. Then they give you a receipt, and you can go from room to room, and they’ll give you what they want to give you. The request form with the stamp, that’s the important thing. Everything else is simple.”
And Franz managed to lay hold of a supply request form, stamped.
He wouldn’t say how he got it. It had blanks on it for specifying information about the size of the troop, the number of officers, the total number of men involved etc etc. Franz filled it out, took a feather quill and ink, and scratched a signature, right over the stamp. It was quite illegible. “It says Major Panevka,” he said. “We’ll wait till tomorrow afternoon. They’ll all be drunk then.”
“Who’s we?” asked Phantom.
“Me,” said Franz, “and Animal, and you.”
The next day was Christmas eve. That morning at breakfast Phantom’s mother said, “Well, there won’t be any presents this year. But tonight we’ll go over to the Krachs’, drink ourselves a little wine. Lisbeth and Herta offered to make a cake. The others will be there too. So don’t get into any trouble before then, okay? And be on time.”
Over the radio came the voices of a children’s chorus, 'Lightly, lightly, it is snowing.' “You just wait,” said Phantom. “Santa Claus might still make it this year.”
Around 3 that afternoon a munitions wagon left the yard at Bohr’s house. Franz sat on the seat. Phantom and Animal crouched in back. They were wearing the winter Hitler Youth uniforms, black with shiny buttons, a little cap with a brim, and a white band around the right arm.
The other two soldiers had been drunk already since early morning. They had stumbled over to the gymnasium to exchange presents with the other soldiers from the town. But one soldier would have to remain in the Quarter. Franz had graciously offered to do that.
As the wagon pulled up to the loading entrance at the supply warehouse, Franz called out to them in back, “Come sit in front, we’re here. It’s the Gate to Paradise.” He was really looking forward to the celebration that evening in the stall. He wanted to invite all the neighbors and load them up with presents from this place.
He drew the wagon up on the ramp, and set the brake. The door to the supply house was open. They could see down a long hallway, doors to the left and right. Right in front was the office. There was a set of steps leading up to the door. From inside they could hear singing and laughing.
“They’re in the right mood,” said Franz, “so let’s go.”
They climbed down from the wagon onto the ramp, then through the door. “Hello!” Franz called a couple of times. Then he climbed the steps to the office.
“Here’s hoping,” said Phantom. They watched through the office window.
They saw Franz lay the request form on the table. There was a discussion. Franz motioned outside, and then a tall fellow with a glass eye and an unbuttoned uniform jacket started shouting, not angry, more just like he always shouted.
Then the two of them came down the steps. The tall one was still shouting, and laughing, “Well, you little shavers, you, so you want to win the war. Christmas away from Mommy and Daddy.” He stumbled on the last step, and nearly fell. One could tell that he was fairly drunk. “So take what you want,” he said. “Santa Claus is coming today. Could be your last Christmas, you little tigers.”
“We don’t need so very much,” said Franz. “It’s just two cars’ full. They arrived at the station today, and tomorrow morning they leave again for the front.”
The tall one stared hard at him. “How can one be so stupid?” he said.
Then he called down the long hallway, “My dear associates, you drunken potato sacks, we have here the wonder troops, and they want to procure chow.”
A wide older man swayed and drooled in their direction, drunk and stuttering. “So give them something,” the tall one shouted at him. “Special provisions for this special troop on a special mission.” He climbed back up the steps, singing, 'Turn the motor onnnn, give it lots of gassssssss.'
The wide one, wearing canvas pants and an undershirt, led them down the long hallway, and opened a door. They stood in front of a counter. Behind it there were shelves packed from top to bottom with bottles, cans, jars etc etc. “You will find the finest here,” sang the wide old man. “Gentlemen, what shall it be?”
They took cognac. “Good for the fight to victory,” said Franz. And the thick one laughed and laughed.
Sardines packed in oil, fruits packed in jars, and other stuff they didn’t recognize, the thick old man shoved them all over the counter to them. Animal and Phantom carried everything to the wagon. From another room they got flour, lard, and oil, a large ham, sugar, and a couple of armloads of commissary bread.
There were other people sitting around in the other rooms. They were all drunk. No one cared what they took, but Franz made sure that everything happened under the eyes of the man leading them around.
When they came to the last room, where clothing was stored, they had a nasty surprise: sitting there on the counter, bottle in hand, a soldier hanging around her neck, was Inge Vordamm. She collapsed in giggles when she saw the three walk in.
“Now it’s all over,” thought Phantom. He recognized the soldier to be the one-armed associate of poor Gerda Bertenkaemper. But then he also noticed that the soldier couldn’t see or hear anything right now.
Phantom whispered to Inge, “We’ll share it.”
The wide one who was accompanying them walked around behind the counter. “Do you know about the company mattress?” he asked.
Inge Vordamm laughed. “I know all the soldiers,” she cried. She took a swig from her bottle. “That,” she said, pointing to Phantom, “is my cousin.” And she laughed again. It seemed that there was no end to the laughter.
“Don’t pay any attention to her,” said the wide one, “she’s drunk.”
He took the bottle out of her hand, and took a drink himself. Inge Vordamm slid from the counter, gently laid the one-armed soldier out on the wooden floor, and reached over to the shelves.
“Here,” she said, and she laid sweater after sweater and gloves and blankets on the counter. “That’s so you don’t freeze, Santa’s little helpers.” She laughed, and let the wide one fiddle around in her shirt.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Franz.
They carried the stuff, armloads full up to their necks, down the hallway to the ramp. The one-eyed character came once more out of the office, down the steps to the ramp, and he looked in the back of the wagon. He exclaimed, “But that’s enough for two companies! Oh well, merry Christmas and happy Heil Hitler.”
Franz nodded at him. “Until victory,” Franz said.
And this storehouse gang leader was suddenly overcome with a fit of coughing and laughing. He cried in a high hoarse voice, “Victory! Of course!” Then he unzipped his pants and took a leak out over the ramp.
Franz released the brake, snapped the horses’ reins lightly, and stroked them with the whip. In short order they were pulling away from the loading area.Animal and Phantom disappeared under the things in the back of the wagon.
ThinMan, Sugar, and Sparks had the stall scrubbed out and straightened up and decorated. Straw stars were hanging from the ceiling. There was a Christmas tree so tall it touched the rafters. It was covered with candles and silver strips of metal gleaned from the American bombing raids.
All around the tree, all around the room, straw bundles were tied up for sitting on, and there was a white sheet covering two of the feed boxes, white as snow, of which there wasn’t any outside.
They laid out all the goodies on this table. It smelled like resin, burnt pine needles, horse sweat and candle wax.
As Phantom opened the stall door and greeted people as they came in, it was just like in the middle of peace.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Makevka. The ladies were sniffling. Animal’s grandfather was bawling. Franz greeted them, “Dear friends and neighbors,” and got kisses.
Everyone ooohed and ahhhed at the sight of the table. They all found a seat around the Christmas tree. Cognac made the rounds. They nibbled pralines and chocolates, they smoked cigarettes, they sang 'O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are your branches.' The short Mr. Pottmann gave a speech that was so long that Berta Niehus whispered to him, “Come to the end of it, please.”