<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Little Fireworks
Chapter 24

Grand Alarm all around the clock. The Americans were bombing in the daytime, the British at night.

There were always planes in the air. They shot into the houses. They chased people off the streets and through the squares and fields. People got used to it.

A lot of people just lived at the bunker these days. An old church carnival had been set up in the large meeting room in the bunker. It had a wooden swing decorated with carved horses and carriages. They all rocked back and forth, a mermaid, a hart, and a camel, everything painted in bright colors. There was an organ that played 'Ach, du lieber Augustine' and 'Darling I only have eyes for you.'

They played around on that a lot. They ran it at top speed, they jumped around, they did somersaults across the room and back, they swung themselves on its pipes like apes. Even the adults had themselves a little fun. They sat in the swing, particularly Grandma Bertram, who just couldn’t seem to get enough of it. She giggled like a little girl getting tickled.

Of course they weren’t always in the bunker. From the train overpass or Merrick’s wall there was a good view of the path of the bombers.

They would parade by in formation. Sometimes there would be fire from the ground to answer them, coming from the Red Mountains. But they hardly had any ammunition left, and were firing more out of fear than out of an attempt to do anything. Their machines didn’t have the range, anyway, to hit those planes 24,000 feet up in the air.

Finally an attack by a group of 7 planes silenced the installation for good. Three bloody artillerymen, all 17-year-olds, ran crying through the Quarter. They threw themselves on Phantom, Animal, ThinMan, Sparks, and Sugar. These five transported the wounded to the hospital. They were all that remained of their battery.

And then came another frost. An unusual winter day it was, with thick fog, the sun just a pale yellow thing behind it. And the skyline looked like this: chimneys, telephone poles, wires, the train overpass, the boiler and the Dreizehnbogen, stretches and spots, soft lines and lands beyond, no bombs. Just crows.

In Dohmann’s thicket there was a blanket of snow, and frost on the branches. They were ice skating on Stonewall Lake. They played hockey, they skated figures.

ThinMan’s Grandma was there too, with runners under her wheels, hands in a muff, her fox pelt around her neck, her rabbit fur hat on. Lorenz Fuchs was pushing her. He had Hudora hightop ice skates. Sometimes he would give the chair a slight push, and then he would sail away, small steps, this foot, that foot, in a tight circle around Berta Niehus, hands folded behind his back, his scarf blowing behind him.

They drank schnaps from their flask and laughed and squealed. They didn’t hear the plane until too late.

They were able to scramble away, and get under the overhang at the beach, but ThinMan’s Grandma and Lorenz Fuchs were still on the ice. And then there was howling and crashing and the splintering of ice and fountains of spray. After a couple of seconds it cleared.

There was Lorenz Fuchs, still standing, stiff and straight behind the wheelchair. The air was still full of chattering explosives. Berta Niehus was still there, too, sitting with her head turned back. “Grandmaaa!” screamed ThinMan.

Phantom shouted, “Into the cave!”

They struggled over the ice. Phantom pushed the chair alongside the stone retaining wall, until they got to the entrance of the cave. He ripped Berta Niehus out of her chair. He crawled in the hole and pulled her in with him, into the grotto. The ice was still holding.

The others slid in after them, on their backs or stomachs, lastly Lorenz Fuchs.

And then the howling began all over again. It was a mouth-opener, this attack. They flew against each other into the walls of the grotto. The rattle of debris rained back down, like drumfire, then the angry yowling again.

Then it let up. It grew still. It grew dark. Only a little fresh air was wafting through the cave opening.

“Grandma,” ThinMan said.

And Berta Niehus said, “That was the last bottle of French cognac anyway.”

And they all laughed so loud they thought the grotto was going to cave in.

Then it snowed again. The boys and Sugar took their sleds and headed for the Red Mountains. They went sledding. They visited the site of the bombed-out antiaircraft artillery, looking for salvageable stuff. They didn’t find anything to speak of. They poked around also in the ruins of Abbatz’s distillery. But they found nothing there either. They crawled into an old mineshaft and took a rest on the hill.

It was an almost-clear day in early March. The snow was melting already in places, and there were patches of red earth showing. They were sitting on their sleds. Animal and Sparks made thick snowballs and let them roll down the hill.

Then Sugar pointed to a spot near the sun, hanging low. They listened, and saw the trail the bombers left behind them, just under the clouds. They were headed directly towards their town.

“Down!” Phantom cried. “Back into the mineshaft!”

They let themselves roll down to the overhang, and then they ran along under it to the shaft.

And the first bombs began bursting around them. The onslaught was on. They could feel the shock waves like little wind blasts.

Once they were inside, the bigger bombs came, wave after wave of them. Their ears were aching from the noise. Then a short burst of firebombs, and the smoke and smell of bursting canisters full of phosphorus, and then the whole thing once more, from the top: little bombs, big bombs and firebombs. And again, and again, in the same order.

Two hours later, when they crawled out of the mineshaft and to the top of the next hill, they couldn’t see the town at all. But they could see smoke. Smoke and fire.

Their Quarter was still standing. A couple of roofs were off, and the last windows were gone. The factory cafeteria was burning. A couple of chimneys had come down, but everybody was still alive and well, and hugging and kissing, over at the bunker.

But the Hill area, all the way down to the railroad tracks, was a field of ruins. The church was burning.

“Magnificent,” Sparks said.

As Animal was checking on his rabbit hutch – they were all dead – he noticed the time bomb next to the wood shed.

It was on the ground, a little shorter than Animal, but thicker.

He fetched Phantom to show him the thing.

Obviously they weren’t going to be able to arrange for an explosives expert to defuse it.

“Clemens,” said Phantom. “Go, and right now. Don’t stop for anything.”

Then a wagon with a loudspeaker drove up and down the streets, warning the people to return to their shelters or to the bunker until the All Clear signal: there were time bombs everywhere.

Everyone dashed to the bunker. Phantom informed ThinMan, Sparks, and Sugar.

Clemens came on the bicycle, with Animal on the handlebars. “So there’s the baby,” Clemens said as he saw the bomb. He felt it. “That’s the American DEMO. Weighs 1000 pounds, a sizeable piece.”

“When will it blow?” asked Phantom.

“Depends on what the fuse is set for,” said Clemens, “either 2, 4, 6, 8, 12, or 24 hours. We have time, then; it has been over 2 hours since the last raid.”

Clemens laid out his explosives-defusing kit. He gave a speech as he was doing so, explaining what he was doing, using both hands: “The bomb’s propeller turns as it falls through the air. It is coupled to a screw connected to the bomb’s fuse. The screw twists into its hole, towards a glass ampule. The ampule is filled with acid, acetone. The ampule breaks slowly, as the screw is pushed into it. The acid flows through a filter into a wad of cotton, which is housed on top of a celluloid strip. That holds back the detonator’s trigger. The acid eats slowly through it."

Clemens went back to the bomb. He set the timer on. He unscrewed and unscrewed, and drew something out of the hole. He took a little mirror and propped it up by the hole he was working in. He looked into the mirror and whistled softly. He said, “Oh my, oh my, we have to stop this thing, or we’ll all fly skyhigh.”

Phantom was sitting about 5 yards away, smoking. The others were crouching behind the rabbit hutch.

“When I cry ‘go,’ you run as fast as you can to the street, and throw yourselves behind the wall, okay? This is ether,” he explained. He filled an atomizer from a little flask. “This will strengthen the celluloid.”

He went back to the bomb, and squirted the stuff into the hole. Then, using a pair of tweezers, he plucked glass splinters and a wad of cotton out of the hole. “This is the commonest type of fuse there is,” he said, “M43, with three protective barriers. But we’ll conquer it. Quick, get me a ladder.”

Phantom and Animal brought the ladder from Bohr’s stall. They fetched Sparks, Sugar, and ThinMan.

Clemens instructed, “And now lay the bomb on the ladder, carefully, carefully now, like this.”

They grunted. Their arms were nearly breaking. Clemens stuck his hand inside the bomb and said, “It’s not possible to unscrew the base of it. It’s anchored down with two steel bands. That’s the first protective barrier. The second is, of course, in the front part of the fuse. And then there’s the third. It’s a bolt. Ah, they thought this thing out very cleverly, but Clemens is cleverer. It’s housed in a conical nut. If you can screw the bolt free, you can just pull the fuse out, with your hands. And we shall try that, right now. I turn the bolt 360 degrees,” – he turned and turned – “hmm, now she’s at the end of the nut. Well, she’ll have to stay there. Now I need you guys. Animal and Sparks, you tip the ladder, get the bomb rolling, but Phantom and ThinMan, you hold onto it. Let it turn slowly, slowly, until the fuse and its bolt are in the right position. Got that? Okay, let’s try it.”

It didn’t work the first time. One more time, and then Clemens was beaming triumphantly, holding the fuse in his hand.

“Steel fuse with three protective barriers, and we got it out barehanded,” he said.