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The flotilla of pickerel nosed against the bags of beer. Parkie’s Adam’s apple bobbed on his thin neck. He began slowly, all that long reserve suddenly beginning to fall away: “We were behind German lines but had no idea how we got there. We ran out of gas in a low crater and threw some canvas against the sides of the three tanks that had been left after our last battle. If we could keep out of sight, sort of camouflaged, we might have a chance. It got cold that night. We had little food, little water, little ammo, and no gas. It was best, we thought, to wait out our chances. If we didn't know where we were, perhaps the Jerries wouldn't know, either. Sixteen of us were there. We had lost a lot of tanks, had our butts kicked.”

He wasn’t dramatizing anything. You could tell. It was coming as straight as he could make it. Whatever was coming, though, had to be wild, or exorbitant, or eerie or, indeed, inhuman. The last option rode through me like cold fact. The hair on the back of my neck told me so.

“We woke up in the false dawn and they were all around us. Fish in the bottom of the tank is what we were. No two ways about it. Plain, all-out fish lying there, as flat as those pickerel. They took us without a shot being fired. Took us like babes in the pram. All day they questioned us. One guy was an SS guy. A real mean son of a bitch if you ever met one. Once I spit at him and he jammed me with a rifle barrel I swear six inches deep. Ten times he must have kicked me in the guts. Ten times! I couldn’t get to his throat, I’d’ve taken him with me. They stripped our tanks, what was left in them. That night they pushed us into our tanks. I saw the flash of a torch through one of the gun holes. You could hear a generator working nearby. Something was crackling and blistering on the hull or the turret top. Blue light jumped every which way through the gun holes. It was getting hot. Then I realized the sounds and the smells and the weird lights were welding rods being burned."

"The sons of bitches were welding us inside our own tanks. A hell of a lot of arguing and screaming was going on outside. The light went flashing on and off, like a strobe light, if you know what I mean. Blue and white. Blue and white. Off and on. Off and on. But no real terror yet. Not until we heard the roar of a huge diesel engine. And the sound of it getting louder. And then came scraping and brushing against the sides of our tanks. Sand began to seep through the gun holes and peep sights."

"All I could see was that rotten SS bastard smiling down at us. I saw his little mustache and his pale green eyes and his red nose and a smile the devil must have created. And his shining crow-black boots.”

I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t ask him a question. A stunned sensation swept clean through me. First, disbelief, a surging block of disbelief, as if my veins had frozen in place. The dark pit in his eyes could be read; the darkness inside the tank, the utter, inhuman darkness that had become part of Parkie and part of his comrades, the imagined sense of it hitting me slowly. It crept inside me. I knew a sudden likeness to that feeling; it was peering over the edge of a high place, the ground rushing up to meet me and then falling away and the long descent, the torturous fall becoming part of me…in the veins, in the mind. A shiver ran through every part of my body. And then hate welled up in me, stark, naked, unadorned hate, hate of the vilest kind, the kind you can't wear, can't carry by yourself.

Parkie put his hand on my knee. His grip was hard. “I never wanted to tell you, none of you. We all had our thing. You had yours. I had mine. I’m sorry your feet are screwed up. I wish nothing happened to you. But a lot of guys’ve had worse.”

“What happened?” I said, letting his hand carry most of his message, letting my own small miseries fall away as if they did not exist. Not by comparison anyway. My feet had iced up in my sleep. I knew the ignoble difference.

“Sand was almost over the entire tank, and noise inside the tank started. Screaming, cursing, crying. Cries like you never heard in your life. God-awful cries. I never heard anything like them. And coming out of guys I’d known a long time, tough guys, valiant guys, guys with balls who had gone on the line for me. I heard some of them call for their mothers. There was screaming and whimpering and screaming again. And curses! My God, curses to raise the friggin’ dead, unholy curses. Everything dead and unholy and illegitimate, raised from wherever, were brought against the Germans and that little SS bastard. He was castrated and ripped and damned and denounced to the fires of hell. You haven't heard profanity and terror and absolute hatred all in one voice. The volume was turned way up. It filled the tank. It filled that makeshift and permanent vault. And our useless and agonized banging barehanded against the hull of the tank. Knuckles and fists and back-handers against the steel. And the outside noise drowning it all out.”