Stendal, Germany. 1938
The younger officers in the Officer’s Mess took Gott to their hearts when told that he had done his first jump from the door at a run… When told that he then removed the mats and did two more jumps onto concrete they shook their heads. Older, wiser heads quietly disappeared, hoping to be able to say that they knew nothing, if a father needed to be told sad news later in the day!
After lunch they sat quietly listening to records.
“Who decides how you should tie your boot-laces?” Gott asked suddenly.
“The Company-Sergeant-Major… He inspects the men on parade.” A puzzled Harald replied.
“Well, I think that’s part of the problem… when you land.”
“A boot is a boot… it protects our feet and is comfortable to march in… eventually!”
“That’s it, that’s the problem. Because it’s soft enough to walk in it’s loose around the ankle. That allows your foot to fold over sideways when the sole of the boot digs into the mat, or the grass. What you need is for it to be laced tight around your foot for jumping… You can always loosen the laces afterwards to march.”
“That makes sense!” Harald replied thoughtfully… “Yes, it’s easy enough to try… and it’s less work than moving the mats out of the way.” He said with a smile.
“In fact, if you had three separate laces you could leave the instep and calf loose-tied and just pull the ankle tight!” Gott was on a roll.
Harald was less sure… “Tight is alright, we can still cut the laces if someone is shot in the foot, but three laces might take too long to release in combat. Properly tied, a single slice down the row of laces with a sharp knife releases the whole boot in one go. Doing it three times… under fire. No, a really tight boot for jumping and then loosen it when things get quiet… That works much better for me.”
Gott nodded wisely in agreement, as if such things were obvious to seasoned jumpers.
Harald smiled to himself… Every now and then the boy’s youth shone through.
With lunch safely digested, the younger officers accompanied Harald and Gott back to the hangar. This time there were more hands to help move the mats away. They watched with interest the change in landing that resulted from tightening the laces on the unusually small boots they had managed to find for Gott.
When he got home that afternoon, Gott lost no time in finding Sigi and filled him in on what had happened during his visit…
“And he really wasn’t after your…”
“No, he bloody wasn’t!” Gott could hardly be more definite.
“He really wasn’t copping feels every time he picked you up?”
“How many more times? No he wasn’t. He was perfectly nice!”
“Alright, so no hugs and kisses either?” Sigi was now joking in response to his friends denials.
But, at that there was a pause… They had promised that they would always tell each other the absolute truth, no matter what.
“No, there were no kisses!” It wasn’t quite the answer that Sigi had expected but it was honest.
Sigi noticed both the pause and the incomplete denial… So there had been hugs…
He decided to make nothing of it… He concluded, correctly, that any further banter would upset his friend. He also decided that he wanted to be there next time. What Gott had in his pants was Sigi’s and no-one was going to share it with him… until it was a girl, and that was beginning to seem increasingly unlikely.
The next Friday was Gott’s fifteenth birthday.
This year was slightly different. They had always made a long evening of their birthdays, they even got a limited supply of beer… a very limited supply, but enough to feel the excitement of a clouded mind. This year, a clouded mind was not going to be a sensible way for Sigi to get home.
The Party had introduced night-patrols to impose a curfew on unruly youngsters. To be caught out late was bad enough… to be the worse for drink, even just smelling of beer… well, that was a short-cut to the new Youth Court and a few months in a reformatory to learn how to behave in the modern Germany. This was no longer the dissolute Weimar Republic… Field Marshals dropping dead in ballet dresses was yesteryear’s news… The new regime were prudes and strict. So, there would be no drinking, and no late-night run home for Sigi this year.
Gott was disappointed… He suggested to his mother that they celebrate on Saturday, with a lunch and afternoon birthday cake. That didn’t work… his father had a rally to attend. Well, without his father then, he could get his share of the cake later! That earned him a blow on the ear from his mother… Perhaps he had gone too far. It was a few days before he raised the subject again.
In the meantime his mother was feeling guilty… He was a little too old for a smacked ear.
That guilty feeling led to the suggestion that, as Gott’s older brother was away in the army, his bed was empty. So, why not invite Sigi to stay overnight. They had never done it before, but there hadn’t been night-patrols and Youth-Courts to worry about before.
For those days it really was a strange suggestion. Boys didn’t sleep at each other’s home. Mostly friends lived so close that going home wasn’t a problem… They never had friends who lived far enough away for it to be necessary. It would have been different if they had been cousins, but friends… The boys decided not to tell anyone at school or in the Jugend bann.
They weren’t even terribly certain why they were shy about it.
To add to the confusion, Gott’s father decided that it would help promotion of his son’s prospects if he invited Harald to the celebration. Harald in Fallschirmjäger uniform would have no problem with a curfew.
Gott’s mama had used all the influence her husband had to obtain some very special ingredients… not just icing sugar (unbelievably scarce) but marzipan and dried fruits as well. Gottfried’s birthday cake was to be very special.
Happy-Birthday was sung and the candles blown out… quickly to avoid wasting them. His mama cut the cake and passed a slice to him… He in turn passed it… to Harald.
In previous years the little ceremony had always resulted in the first piece going to his very best friend Sigi. This year it went to Harald and Sigi noticed… noticed and was devastated at being dropped as the most important friend that Gott had.
His face showed exactly how he felt.
Gott realised too late what he had done, but it was too late, and Gott knew it.
Harald wished Gott a happy birthday and gave him a knife carved with the insignia of the Fallschirmjäger, an eagle diving to attack. Then he said…
“I have a special treat planned for you. My commanding-officer has agreed to allow you to accompany me to a training jump, where the recruits jump from a basket under a barrage balloon!
And… you can bring Sigi too, as a treat!” He too had seen Sigi’s crestfallen face over the cake, and was making up for it.
Now he would have to smuggle two boys onto the training field. His commanding-officer had said that he would consider the request… The words said maybe, the voice had said no.
Harald chose to believe that his CO was looking favourably on the idea!
Gottfried’s father was very interested in the NSDAP implications of the Fallschirmjäger. They were Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s special project, of which he was enormously proud. That much Gott’s father knew… but…
“You aren’t as blond as the SS.” He said, more bluntly than perhaps intended. “Is there no racial aspect to the recruitment of Fallschirmjäger? I don’t recognise your accent… is it that you come from Bavaria, many Bavarians are darker… but that’s acceptable. After all, the party more or less started in Munich and many of the most senior members aren’t blond giants either!”
There had been a certain amount of alcohol consumed by the men, so perhaps it was the beer talking.
Harald wasn’t in the least put out by the implications of the question…
“Ah, that is a very interesting question!” He answered, as if it had been genuinely intelligent.
“Our recruitment process is quite the opposite of the SS. They are chosen for Nordic purity… not particularly for intelligence or special skills. The Fallschirmjäger are quite different. Our purpose is to parachute behind enemy lines and disrupt communications, blow up bridges…crater roads and so on. To do that we need to be able to blend in. So we choose ethnic-Germans from countries that the Reich has a claim over. We all speak a second language… the language of a target country. I grew up in Holland and speak Dutch. My corporal comes from Estonia. Our purpose is to identify and capture the leaders of the target country. For that we need to understand the country, it’s roads and language.”
“So, you are an educated elite… very good! I hope that you can get our boy to study!”
Gott laughed… “I do well in everything except Latin… We aren’t planning to attack Rome, are we?”
“Not as far as I am aware… There is another category for which we recruit… daring… maybe that is your forte… but another language is advisable.
“Gott is top of his class in French!” His mother spoke up.
“You will have a lot to tell the boy’s Jugend-bann…” She continued. “You must stress how important study is, particularly mathematics and languages… There is so much stress on racial laws and Teutonic history these days.” She lapsed into silence, perhaps she had gone too far. Harald pretended not to notice her apparent disdain for the Party’s education policy.
He stated the obvious… “If he wants a good education for after the Reich has been established, when we shall need engineers and teachers again, then he should apply to one of the Napola. That’s the only place where there is a good education these days, there and the Adolf Hitler Schools, but there aren’t as many of those.”
“Ah yes, the Napola… My party position and Gott’s good standing in the Jugend would help, but really you need a Gauleiter or a General to support an application for it to be considered!” Gott’s father was not sounding very positive.
“But… what if his application was sponsored by the Fallschirmjäger?” Harald said quietly.
“Is that possible?” His father asked quickly… “The Fallschirmjäger would… I mean could?”
“It’s extremely rare, but the Luftwaffe General on the interview panel would take our recommendation seriously. Your boy has impressed me.. We must try to ensure that he impresses my major!”
After the cake had been eaten, with appropriate compliments to Gott’s mama, Harald made his apologies for needing to return to the barracks… He had an 08.00h appointment with a bunch of raw recruits… and he needed all the sleep he could find. The morrow would bring the joys of teaching them the difference between right and left feet… he had a piece of chalk that he used to write L and R on the toes of their boots as a last resort!
Gott’s papa insisted that the boys listen to one of Dr Goebbel’s propaganda speeches on the radio. When he went to sleep, Gott’s mama gestured to them to go quietly to bed. His father would sleep now until well after the speech ended and would never know that the boys had been spared the boredom of empty threats and even emptier promises.
The bedroom was unheated and the boys rushed to undress and huddle under the bedclothes. As boys will in such circumstances they started off in separate beds… then Sigi said… predictably enough…
“Wouldn’t we be warmer, and quieter if I joined you over there?”
Over there was almost no distance, but it was a distance that would make a lifetime of difference.
Gott moved towards the wall to make room for him, but then sensed the cold radiating from the wall… and the heat created by his friend. This didn’t seem a moment for false-modesty. He cuddled up close and then threw an arm round his friend and pulled him to him…
Sigi lay there wondering how to ask the question that he needed an answer to. How do you ask the boy you have loved since kindergarten if he now has a new friend that’s more important to him than you ever were?
He took a deep breath, and as he started “Gott, I need to ask…”
Gott interrupted, not even having heard his friend because he had his own worries…
“Sigi, you know I don’t love him… He’s special… he’s a Fallschirmjäger and he thinks I’m special… but I don’t love him!”
“But… he wants to get into your pants… I’m sure he does… he’s like Heinie. He’s after just one thing, and when he’s got it… you’ll get hurt!… Remember Heinie… don’t let him have it… If you like him you shouldn’t let him have it!” He sounded very serious, almost desperate.
“Why not? Anyway, he doesn’t want that, I’m sure he doesn’t!”
“Of course he does… they all do!”
“No! He doesn’t! I’m sure I would know if he did!”
“I’ve watched the way he looks at you… He sees something magic… something he doesn’t see when he looks at me!”
Sigi was quite wrong… The man looked at Sigi with neutrality, but for quite the opposite reason.
He thought Gott was beautiful, and agile, clever and brave, but he didn’t lust after Gott… simply because he was too young.
Sigi on the other hand was a year older. Already sixteen, he had a firmer body, a stronger feel to him. He showed no interest in girls, and he had a cute younger friend in Gott, that he clearly adored.
Sigi was showing all the signs, and Harald recognised them for what they were.
For Harald, Sigi showed all the signs of a young man who had emerged from puberty ready for a life in the shadows. He was clearly a recruit who one day soon would find his own way to the shower block in the middle of the night, looking for relief… the relief that his fellow recruits mostly found with girls, in the back-streets behind the station.
Men like Sigi needed the relief that was found in the darker shadows.
Harald knew, that if he wanted, he could have Sigi… but Sigi was Gott’s and that put him out of bounds.
Harald had come to care deeply for Gott. He loved the freshness, the agility… the way he expected to land on his feet. He also sensed that Gott’s sexuality matched his own, and that of Sigi.
He wasn’t attracted to boys as young as Gott. Give it a few years and Gott would be perfect. For the moment he was happy to leave him to Sigi… but, and that was the difficult part… if he left him to Sigi then Harald felt obliged to leave Sigi to Gott.
There were plenty more fish in the sea, and he now had a new bunch of seventeen year old recruits to quietly observe, watching for the ones who sat on their bed on Saturday night instead of going into town looking for girls!
All of this was unknown to the two boys snuggled up in Gott’s bed. Sigi was not looking forward to returning to the other bed in the morning… in case someone came looking for them… The Weimar Republic and its louche ways were long gone, The new National Socialist state had a Lutheran puritanism about it that wouldn’t knowingly tolerate boys sleeping together.
The risk now was that they were going to be distracted from what ought to have been the best part of the birthday celebrations. Sigi made a decision… He wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass. If Harald was a rival then he needed to get in first… He pressed his front against the exciting hardness of his best friend and whispered…
“This is the first time I’ve gone to bed with a boy who’s only just fifteen!”
“Oh, really? There’s been a fourteen year old in my bed for the last year… He’s pretty good in bed!” Gott replied airily, and then laughed.
They had indeed never been to bed before… unless you counted the mattress they sometimes shared in the derelict mill a mile out of town. Sex in warmth and comfort was scarce for these boys… They now found arranging sex more difficult than it had been before. Then they had just been two small boys being naughty, now they were close to being two young men hiding their need.
Bed… a warm bed with sheets, blankets, a pillow and a shut door, was spectacularly special, a real birthday treat.
“Harald may not be after you, but I am!” Sigi was old enough now to think in those terms. He had recently accepted his own disinterest in girls and knew that what they had to offer was never going to excite him. He had recognised that if he was to get sex regularly enough to keep him happy then he needed to accept that things were as they were. That meant not losing Gott to Harald, because Gott was one hundred percent of Sigi’s supply of sex…
He liked it that way. He was beginning to understand love, but wasn’t yet sure that his desire for sex with Gott was related to the affection he had for the friend he made when he was five. The change in their relationship was taking time to become clear.
It was a brilliant night… a truly amazing revelation of what it was to be bedded by a friend in the warmth and comfort of his bedroom. There was nothing furtive or dirty about what they were doing… even the naughtiest things seemed reasonable. Except…that!… Gott refused Sigi that!
“Maybe next year when I’m bigger there…”
“But, I’ll be gentle, and you can tell me to stop…” “No you fucking wouldn’t… I know I couldn’t if you told me to stop!”
So they left it at that… that would have to wait for another night. The birthday night was special enough without “that”.
The boys had temporarily at least sorted out their problems. When they finally allowed things to come to their inevitable conclusion it wasn’t them who lay awake worrying. It was Harald who now had problems… There was a limit to the temptation he could resist, and being around Sigi was certainly temptation. He had felt obliged to invite him to watch the practise jumps… The piece of cake and Sigi’s face… the look of hurt on it… he couldn’t ignore that. But, he was already regretting it… He really couldn’t afford to be alone with him!
All this the boys didn’t understand, yet.
Harald looked at his watch in the moonlight… it was past midnight, the barracks were silent except for the sound of soldiers and recruits sleeping, some more noisily than others. He slipped quietly from his bed and put a sweater and socks on… hopefully there would be someone in the ablutions block who would ease his needs and aid his search for sleep. They would do… but they weren’t Sigi… not yet.
It was two weeks later that his recruits had their first practise jump from a balloon. Harald had second thoughts about taking the boys to watch this particular jump. Occasionally, his first time, a recruit froze in the doorway of the basket. To see someone’s nerve fail them would be… unpleasant. Depending on the instructor, the boy would be straight out the camp gate… paper-work to follow. If the boy gathered his courage and jumped anyway, then maybe there was another chance… It depended on luck and the instructor.
He decided to take the risk… It might do them good to see other boys overcoming their fear, and if they ended up feeling contempt for some poor lad whose ambition had outstripped his courage, well… that too might not be such a bad thing he mused… The boys’ own war was coming, and if he was right then they would soon have their own demons to face.
The day of the trip to the airfield came round and the boys, dressed in the smallest parachute overalls that Harald could find, joined him in the lorry. They looked the part and the guards at the gate didn’t count the recruits… they counted the instructor… Who he brought with him was up to him. Dressed as they were, the boys were all but invisible.
Harald had introduced them to the recruits, so that everyone had the right story…
“This is Sigi and this is Gott. They’re Jugend prizewinners… Their prize is to join us today to see you do your first jump… Give them something to remember… No hesitation, when the jump-master says Go… Show them that you are Fallschirmjäger. Make me proud… and give the boys here something to aim for! In a year or less they may be sitting where you are today!”
The balloon seemed huge. It was a barrage balloon designed to lift a steel wire to a great height to discourage aircraft. An aircraft that flew into a wire could be cut in half. They would be flown in hundreds over cities and airfields to discourage the enemy. The airmen who operated them felt cheated. Hermann Göring had boasted that his Luftwaffe would never allow English fliers to bomb the German homeland. The people believed him, and his barrage balloon teams felt their job was seen as a waste of time. They looked forward to the training jumps that they provided for the Fallschirmjäger … They had a purpose and for once the men felt useful.
On the ground the balloon seemed flabby… But, it still had all the lift it needed for today. The basket and six men weighed a lot less than the large drum of steel wire on the truck beside them. Today they were only rising to a few hundred feet for the jumps, so the balloon flapped and flopped lazily in the light breeze.
Harald had his list of jumpers… It was not alphabetical… He didn’t want Braun to know that it would be over quickly nor Wenders to think that he wouldn’t be called on till lunchtime. The list was random and it was Wenders who was actually going to be first out of the basket.
He had given a great deal of thought to what he was going to allow the two boys to do. He had told their parents that they were there just to watch… He hadn’t said precisely where they would watch from!
Everyone was issued with their own parachute, fallschirm, even the boys had one each…
“You must look the part!”
He had no intention that they would need to be used, but… He had decided to let the boys ride in the balloon and just in case… a parachute seemed a sensible precaution. He had packed the ‘chutes himself. They weren’t going to be used, but you couldn’t be too careful!
He decided to let the boys ride the balloon from the start. Letting them watch it disappear into the sky might be bad for their nerves… The one who rode the second balloon needed better nerves than the one who rode first… Gott had the better nerves if the gasworks-wall was anything to go by, and… he still felt guilty about the disappointment on Sigi’s face when the first piece of cake was not his… So, Sigi was called to join the first four recruits. Harald checked his harness very carefully…
“Remember, stay away from the gate, and once the gate is open keep a firm hold on the cable in the corner furthest away, in case a gust of wind makes it sway… We don’t want you making your first jump by accident… before you’ve even signed up!” It was a joke, but it planted an idea.
The recruits were excited, with a lot of undisciplined pushing and shoving as the remainder pretended that the first four were reluctant… half of them held them back while the other half dragged them towards the balloon. Harald enjoyed the banter but eventually had them form up in two rows, had them call off their names. Gott and Sigi standing on the ends of the rows called out their names in turn, their chests puffed with pride… it might only be for the day, but today they were Fallschirmjäger.
The first four and Sigi stepped out of line and marched smartly to the wicker basket hanging under the balloon. Followed by Harald, the five of them climbed in and found something to hold onto.
Harald addressed them quietly… “Right then, this is your first jump and its your first ride in a balloon. We didn’t practise the balloon ride for a good reason. There is something about the view from a balloon that makes it more difficult to jump from than an aircraft. From an aircraft the fall calls to you, from a balloon the fall doesn’t.. No-one knows why it is but there you have it. When your turn comes you will need to do something requiring more courage than anything else you will ever do in the Fallschirmjäger. This is the real test. It’s not a question of whether you can parachute, the static line will look after that… It’s a question of whether you can jump! So don’t stand in the gate… stand a few paces back. When I say Go! take those paces quickly and without hesitation step straight out in one go. Good luck.”
Now he would discover which of them were Fallschirmjäger and which were simply infantry! He cast a sideways glance at Sigi. Sigi was white as a sheet… even though he didn’t have to jump.
Harald slapped the side of the basket and the airmen at the winch released the friction brake so that the balloon began to rise. At first the distance to the ground was obvious and alarming. Sigi closed his eyes and waited for a reason to open them again. One of the recruits whispered in his ear…
“It’s alright now, it’s safe to look!”
Sigi opened his eyes and it was true, the view was magnificent, he could see forever, the white-walled mass of the baroque Prussian Palace and the beautiful Berlin-Brandenburg Gardens by the Havel River
He was brought back to reality with a bump…
“Sigi… you’re first!” Harald shouted over the noise of the wind.
Sigi nearly died… and then he saw the grin on Harald’s face.
“I don’t think your parents would forgive me, so you’ll have to give the honour to Wenders.”
“Wenders step forward!”
He had chosen well, Wenders stepped to the middle of the basket, Harald opened the wicker gate, checked that Wenders static line was properly attached and shouted Go!”
Two steps forward, a third and Wenders was gone. The others peered over the side to watch his parachute open almost instantly and then he floated away down wind. They saw his parachute collapse as he landed.
“Braun, step forward!” and so they went, each without hesitation.
Sigi was still white but composed, and then he grinned… “Step forward?” He asked.
Harald paused for just a heartbeat “No, not today Sigi… Well done for asking!”
It had been tempting… the boy had asked! That took courage! This was indeed an exceptional kid.
The balloon began its descent.
The second set were loaded, together with Gott. Sigi didn’t have time to tell him what had happened, so Harald was free to play the same trick on Gott. Gott however took him by surprise… when Harald said for him to step forward, he did so, and clipped his static line on. He took a lot of persuading to unhook and accept that Harald had been joking.
All four recruits jumped smoothly, each with a pat on the back from Harald as they left the basket. They had no real choice, they were doing it in front of not just their comrades and instructor but also in front of a fifteen year old schoolboy who had risked insubordination in his pleas to be allowed to jump!
Sigi took the next ride and Gott the one after that. Sigi enjoyed the launch the second time and had no need to close his eyes although he still felt more comfortable at height than he did close to the ground. Harald patted him on the back, and had his arm round the boy’s shoulder most of the way down while he told him how well he had done to take a second ride. As they approached the ground, Harald discreetly removed his arm and asked Sigi…
“Another ride? Or have you had enough for today?
“Another please… it’s scary and exciting… a third might even be fun!” and he risked a small grin.
Gott had his second ride. He argued with Harald all the way down that he should be allowed to jump. Not a single one of his arguments in favour of being allowed to jump made any sense, but then he said…
“At least it would give me a real understanding of the problems you have landing!” Harald nearly gave in, but then wisely decided that no-one would agree that it was sensible. Gott quietly fumed!
Sigi’s third ride was a bit of a drama… the fourth jumper froze at the gate.
Harald spoke to him quietly…
“I think you stumbled, try it again!”
The recruit, his face ashen went back two paces. Harald shouted Go!
The jumper took two smart steps forward and before he could change his mind a slap on the back propelled him out.
Harald turned to a shocked Sigi… “Not a word to the others… He jumped, that’s all that matters. If he wanted to back out he could have simply refused. He wanted to do it, he just needed encouragement!”
“Not, a word Sir, I don’t know how he had the courage to make a second attempt!”
Where the Sir came from Sigi wasn’t sure. Suddenly he had a tremendous respect for this man that could make even terrified youngsters obey him. He could now see what it was that Gott saw in Harald.
When Harald put his arm around his shoulders during the ride down, he risked putting his around Harald’s waist and gave him a swift hug as they broke apart for the last hundred feet.
So far they had gathered two sprained wrists, one suspected fracture and a ruined ‘chute that got caught by a gust of wind, leaving its wearer suspended in an apple tree. He earned praise for insisting on throwing down enough apples for his comrades before cutting himself free. It was an untidy process, Fallschirmjäger harnesses had no quick release mechanism. Some bureaucrat at a drawing board had clearly decided that the most important thing for a parachute harness was that it shouldn’t come undone. No jumper caught in a tree or faced by enemy infantry would have agreed. It was a design error that would get many men killed on Crete.
That left Gott’s final ride. Harald was expecting an argument but Gott was quiet and disciplined.
As the last recruit left the basket and Harald looked over the side… Gott clipped on his static line, and before Harald could stop him, he shouted Go! and ran straight out the gate!
Harald heard the shout, glanced a blur, and then a fifth parachute blossomed below.
He heard a faint shout of “I’ll see you down there!” and Gott was gone!
When the basket reached the ground he found Gott surrounded by grinning recruits who obviously thought he was the cat’s pyjamas!
“Well done Gott! I knew you had it in you!” The only thing left to do was to pretend that he had been in control.
“Did you learn anything about landing?” He asked, as if that had been the purpose of the exercise.
“Yes, it’s a trifle disorganised, too many limbs and too little control. Now I know what it feels like to be a handbag.”
The thought of him feeling like a handbag caused the recruits to crack up. When the uproar died down, Harald took them to the shed to repack their ‘chutes. He said that a technician would do Gott’s later.
Then he took everyone to one side…
“Today never happened… If it happened, then the boys watched the jumps from the ground, and if anyone had a ride in the balloon then nobody jumped who shouldn’t have… No gossiping outside the base… there’s too much to lose! Agreed?”
“Jawohl!” They shouted, and the one who had faltered at the gate started a handclap. To do so he had to remove the arm that he had around Sigi’s shoulders. Harald smiled to himself… another question had been answered.
It had been a memorable day! Every recruit had jumped more or less safely, injuries didn’t matter, nobody had really hesitated, that was what mattered. The boys were safe and their secret was safe. Harald’s standing could hardly have been higher with his soldiers. To a man they would die for him… and on Crete, almost to a man they would do just that. But, that was years in the future. The whole of their short lives lay between now and then.
If anything, Harald now had two problems. On the one hand he had two teenaged boys who loved each other, as far as he could tell… and who were now both infatuated with him, as far as he could tell. He, on the other hand, was attracted to just one of them as a potential lover, and to the other in a platonic but, if anything, a more emotionally involved way…
‘Life’s a bitch’ he thought, with a wry smile.
This was going to take some sorting out if everyone was to walk away happy… and satisfied.
The boys spent the next three weeks telling each other how wonderful Harald was.
Sigi was no longer convinced that Harald was trying to undo Gott’s pants.
He also understood that Harald had gone out of his way to make up for the cavalier way that Gott’s birthday cake had been dispensed.
The three weeks brought them to Sigi’s birthday. His sixteenth birthday. Naturally he wanted to invite Harald to his celebration but Sigi’s mother put her foot down. Sugar was scarce and dried fruit was scarcer. There was no way that a middle-aged man (actually Harald was only just twenty-seven) was going to get his knees under her table!
That led to two fateful results. The first was that Sigi felt bad about not being able to invite Harald to his birthday. The other was that Harald, knowing how Sigi felt, had the idea of inviting him to stay the night at the base… safely housed in the guest quarters. They would have a few beers in the mess, and then Harald could discuss Sigi’s future. He thought that the boy had the makings of a good soldier.
Afterwards he would walk Sigi across to his bunk in the guests’ quarters.
That was the plan.
Sigi explained to his mother that Harald was keen to help him find a career. He suspected he knew what Harald had in mind, but didn’t think that his mother would think that getting shot at was a good career. He left the topic vague and used his guilt at not having matched Gott’s invitation as a reason to accept the invitation to the base. His mother gave in… eventually.
Sigi’s problem was, of course, not just how to explain to Gott that Harald had asked him to stay at the base but that Gott was not included in the trip. Gott might be very hurt, even if it all revolved around Harald’s attempts to recruit Sigi into the Fallschirmjäger.
It was Gott’s grandparents that provided the solution.
Gott’s parents declared a pressing need to visit his grandparents in Bremen, with an absolute necessity for him to go with them. He suspected that it was his growing ability to carry suitcases up and down stairs at railway stations that they really needed, but he lacked the good excuse needed to get out of the trip… or holiday as they termed it. Gott didn’t see it as a holiday, but he kept quiet… he had inherited from his father an understanding of the role of silences in politics.
Sigi was very good about losing Gott to his grandparents and even offered his help in getting their luggage to the mainline railway station. With the extra help they could walk the five miles and save the taxi fare. Sigi got a pat on the back from Gott’s father and a face-powdery kiss on the cheek from his mother.
Neither made up for the loss of his… well his losses were considerable… he was sixteen and Gott was the whole of his relief… except for his fantasies. His bed-time fantasies were what troubled him… He now visualised Harald almost as much as Gott… and that troubled him afterwards. But not when he was down to the short strokes… beyond those lay a complete lack of reason and control… and Harald.
At those times he wished afterwards that he had Gott beside him to keep his thoughts within bounds.
Gott’s absence allowed Sigi to accept the invitation to stay overnight at the barracks, for some serious discussion of when to leave school and when to enlist in the army… or Lufwaffe or even the Navy. Sigi however was perfectly clear that he was being edged towards the Fallschirmjäger, although he wasn’t clear quite why. No-one ever really perceives himself as exceptional… except those who aren’t.
Resplendent in his well-pressed Hitler-Youth uniform he turned up at the gate of the base and presented himself to the guard. He sat on a gate-post while he waited for Harald to appear. It was just gone five o-clock on a Friday afternoon. Harald had told him to arrive in good time for the evening meal at seven.
Harald appeared at a brisk trot…
“Well done Sigi, perfectly timed… I have time to introduce you to my friends and we can have a quick beer… You do drink beer don’t you?”
“Oh yes, but not a lot… Mama will smell it on my breath.”
“Not tonight she won’t… you aren’t going home tonight!”
They settled into armchairs in the mess. Each time another instructor arrived, Sigi had to struggle out of the deep seat to click his heels, salute and say Heil Hitler. It must have been at least six times, and the last of them were after a litre of blond beer. He was becoming a trifle slurred, and unsteady on his feet.
It was almost a relief when a distant gong announced dinner. It was very formal, the assembled instructors formed two columns as if on parade and marched into the dining-room. One or two had a lady on their arm… married men whose wives lived in the town. Harald marched in with Sigi.
There were ten of them at the table. There was room for twice as many. Harald said quietly to Sigi…
“I chose Friday because the food is better. Half of us are allowed to be off-base for the weekend and even with a few wives and guests the number is well down on a normal night… but, the cooks have the same budget as usual so they can spend almost twice as much on each of us… so tonight the food is better!”
“The base is quieter too. We’re away from the recruits so they can celebrate another week done, and we wont be disturbed either… The only place we might see them at the weekend is at the ablutions block!”
“The ablutions block?” Said Sigi, puzzled as to why that was relevant.
“Yes, you can have a hot shower later if you like… The water stays hot until midnight. After midnight it’s not the water that’s hot… So I’m told!” Harald suddenly realised that the beer that was talking.
“I mean… men sometimes go there to let off steam… after midnight.” Harald’s explanation tailed off.
“Ah!” said an equally drunk Sigi… “The changing rooms at the Jugend summer camp were like that… A lot of steam was let off there too!” and he hiccuped.
The food was as good as Harald had promised… a thick, hot soup and then Wiener Schnitzel with fried potatoes and green vegetables. Sigi had not seen such a spread in a long-time.
“This is wonderful…” He said, then “Can I come here every weekend?”
“You can when you are an instructor!” Harald said with a smile.
Afterwards there was an apple pie with cream and then coffee. As far as Sigi could tell it was real coffee. They retired to the bar. Although he tried to pace himself, by midnight Sigi was feeling the worse for wear. He had never been really drunk before and he wasn’t sure that he could lie down without throwing up… and it had been too good an evening to waste the food.
Harald escorted him back to his guest-room. Sigi sat on the bed and closed his eyes. It didn’t help, the room began to spin, faster and faster… He opened his eyes and the spinning world crashed, and span the opposite way.
“Come on!” Harald said. “Let’s take you for a walk, a long walk… We need to walk off some of that alcohol! Then, you can sleep off the rest. Tomorrow’s another day, but remember… Yesterday never returns. So, let’s make sure you are able to make the right decisions tomorrow!”
They walked all the way out to the balloon drop-zone… and back… and four times round the parade-ground. Harald wouldn’t let him walk across the parade-ground. He was unable to march with the respect due to it… He could barely walk at all when they started.
Harald needed to keep him out of sight. Getting schoolboys drunk would not enhance his image… even if Gott’s swallow-dive from the balloon had marked the boys out as special. He was mad to have taken the boy up in the first place, but his major clearly thought he had done well to have spotted the boys’ potential.
By 01.30h Sigi was feeling quite a bit better.
That was when they passed the ablutions block for what must have been the fifth time…
“Are there towels in there at this time of night?” Sigi asked… “I fancy a shower, a cold-shower would help clear my head.”
“The attendant will have re-stocked before going off duty… But… after midnight, God knows what you might see!”
“I don’t care what I see… I need cold water on my head. Anyway I doubt there’s anything I haven’t seen at school or at a bann camp!”
Harald took him in and found him a towel. The place was quiet, so not trusting himself to stay, he quickly showed him how to turn the water off when he had finished, and then left the boy to his shower.
He went outside to sit in the moonlight and had a quiet smoke. Sitting quietly, the alcohol conspired to make him sleepy… so he slept… only for twenty minutes, but that was long enough. He woke with a start, saw the time on his watch and realised that Sigi would be frozen if he was still cold-showering.
His rubber-soled jump-boots made almost no sound as he entered the building and walked through the changing area towards the showers.
It was near the last row of lockers that he saw them… They didn’t see him, and he drew back into the shadows.
Sigi was with the jumper who had stumbled, the one whose secret Sigi had kept… It would never be clear to Harald whether it was lust or gratitude or even friendship. For whatever reason, the reluctant jumper was kneeling between the naked Sigi’s legs, performing… well confirming his appreciation of Sigi’s discretion with an act that would itself require further discretion… on both their parts, although Sigi’s parts were currently most indiscreet!
He watched fascinated as Sigi closed his eyes and moved his hands from behind the jumper’s head, to rest them on his shoulders. Clearly the alcohol and the excitement of the moment were making his knees unreliable. That was confirmed when he gave out a loud murmur and folded forward onto the older boy, his hips jerking. His face cleared, registering both joy and relief.
Harald, his hopes fulfilled, and his problems multiplied, withdrew quietly and went back to sit outside with a fresh cigarette.
When Sigi reappeared they sat quietly in the moonlight, the night unseasonably mild. It was now two-o-clock in the morning, but tomorrow was Saturday and Sigi wasn’t due home until Sunday lunch. So, they sat quietly.
“Feeling better? Was the shower all you could have hoped for?” Harald asked.
“Yes indeed!” Sigi couldn’t hide the effect that the jumper had excited in him.
“The showers have that effect after midnight… Nothing like it to relax you.” Harald was teasing.
Sigi understood. Whether or not Harald knew exactly what had happened, he clearly had a shrewd suspicion that something had. Sigi could admit it or deny it… or simply ignore it.
“It was… It was everything you promised… and more. I shall look forward to late night showers… when I’m an instructor… or even a recruit.”
“You think it better to be an instructor?”
“Yes, I think it’s better to be top-dog. Gott and I get on so well because he’s a year younger, so he’s more like a younger brother. If he was a year older I would be following him around instead and that wouldn’t be so much fun.” It was a long explanation… but Harald had asked!
“I see, but I’m 27 to your 16?” The question was obvious.
“That’s different… I’d follow you anywhere… like you would follow Skorzeny or Rommel. I admire you… You’re… well, it is different!”
In the darkness Harald put his arm round the youngster’s shoulder…
“Not to me.” He said. “To me it’s like… like you are to Gott!”
He left it at that, it was sufficient statement or even admission. For one night… it was enough.
Saturday morning saw them take breakfast just about as late as it could be. The orderlies were already setting tables for lunch when they left.
“Come and see the high-jump tower? It’s where recruits get to try a real harness. There’s a windmill brake to give a controlled descent. It feels quite like the real thing, all that’s missing is the long float down.”
“Gott said that the jump was absolutely magic, mystical… he floated on and on… then the ground rushed up and he managed a roll. That was just as well, he hadn’t been taught to land properly!” Sigi was impressed by his madcap friend’s unauthorised jump.
“Yes, it was a good thing I’d given him a real ‘chute and not one of the training dummies. We’ve allowed for that, he would have ended up hanging under the basket on the end of a length of webbing… not quite what he intended! But not killed either!”
“Good God, it never occurred to me that the ‘chute might not be real!” Sigi too had, just for a moment thought of jumping after the other jumper stumbled… but he hadn’t been ordered to, so an inner discipline hadn’t allowed him the audacity that his undisciplined young friend had shown.
“I’m glad you didn’t jump… Gott is just a kid, so his indiscipline was excusable…. enchanting perhaps. If you had jumped it would have been a permanent black-mark against you. We want daring, but above all we demand discipline.”
“Well…” Sigi replied to his hero… “Tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it for you!”
The meaning was clear. Sigi looked up hopefully…
“If I did that. If I told you and you did it, then I wouldn’t be able to look Gott in the eye. Eventually he would notice, he’s a bright kid. We would hurt him, and I’m not willing to do that… He means too much to me, and if you stop to think it through, he means too much to you too.”
“It’s not just hero worship, you know.” Sigi muttered.
“I know it’s not… that’s why we can’t let it grow beyond… meeting in the ablutions block. Even that mustn’t look like it’s just you and me… But, someday, when it is, when I have fixed things so that it can be, then it will be really special… I promise you that!”
“You’re that good? Really special? I can hardly wait!” Sigi was doing his best to take the put-down lightly, but… tears were near, his eyes sparkled in the sun.
“Come on!” Said Harald… “The jump-tower is waiting!”
“Oh my head!… Are you sure?”
“Yes, the adrenalin rush will clear your head! Anyway, you can tell me if I manage anything like what you saw when Gott landed the other day.”
Gott was never far away… They had talked for five minutes… and there he was again, not with them but between them.
The jump tower was really high. Basically just a lot of scaffolding and wood, but taller than the highest building Sigi had ever seen. By the time they reached the top Sigi was out of breath and Harald was still chatting happily as they climbed. It did nothing to diminish the hero-worship.
At the top there was a long rope wound round a reel that had a gearbox and a windmill attached. The blades of the windmill were set to face their direction of travel.
“When the rope pulls, the blades resist the air and can never go round faster than it’s safe for you to fall. The faster they go the more they resist your fall until you stop accelerating and fall at a constant speed like you saw the parachutes do. So, there’s a big jerk at the start as if the static line went tight, then you start to speed up as if the parachute’s canopy takes time to develop, and then when it has… you continue on down at constant speed to hit the pile of mats at the bottom… I got them to put extra last night.”Harald was briskly fitting Sigi into the harness. He didn’t want him to have time to think of reasons to stop. He needn’t have worried. Sigi was determined to do this well. He had dived off the top board at the pool, and the third ascent in the balloon hadn’t scared him at all… But, standing on the edge of the platform he made the mistake of looking down, just as Harald said… “Don’t look down!”
“Stop!” Harald shouted firmly. “Come back here, two long paces from the edge. Now, jerk on the cable… Feel that? That’s what’s going to slow you down. When I shout Go! Give the static line a jerk to check it’s firm, then two quick long paces to the edge and a third into space… Got it?”Sigi nodded, regretting all last night’s beer.
Sigi switched his mind off. He jerked on the line ran forward looking straight in front, never down… and he was gone; a jerk, a rush of air and then just the sound of the windmill and its gearbox getting fainter as the ground came up towards him.
The landing was far from perfect, very untidy in fact, but that was the fault of the idiot who designed the harness… Sigi himself had behaved flawlessly.
Above him he heard a second whine from a windmill and he looked up to see Harald descending on the second rig.
He ran to him… “Was that alright, did I do it right?” At heart he was still a child and in need of reassurance.
“Right? That was brilliant… no hesitation… no sign of fear… absolutely perfect. Remember the first time is the hardest and you’ll never need to do it for the first time again… From now on it’s just a fairground ride… and the Fatherland pays!”
“Was that what Gott felt? That peace as we fell?”
Harald didn’t want to lessen what Sigi had just experienced, but he needed the truth.
“Not exactly, the float down from the balloon and even more from a plane takes so much longer and everything happens so much more slowly… You can’t guess how good it feels… wait till it’s your turn.”
“Can we do it again?” Sigi asked hopefully.
“As often as you want… Your shoulders will get sore from the harness eventually… but it’s a while to lunch!”
“Can we have a late lunch?” Sigi asked hopefully.
By lunchtime Sigi was trying for style. Just for fun he was doing perfect swallow-dives as if in the pool. While Harald kept telling him that a quick drop out of the way of the aircraft’s tail-plane was actually a better idea!
“But, not so much fun.” Was Sigi’s reply.
Eventually they broke for lunch. Sigi once again met Harald’s fellow instructors. Harald told them how difficult it had been to stop Sigi’s fun with the high jump-tower, and that they had nearly missed out on lunch altogether. They all agreed that the tower was fun, but said that he should make the most of the food at their mess because the food where the recruits ate wasn’t nearly as good, although it was still better than the civilian population was receiving.
Sigi noticed the general assumption that he would shortly be joining them as a recruit.
It felt natural. Joining the Fallschirmjäger would place him close to his hero.
During the afternoon, Harald took him to see the rest of the base, including the parade ground. He was explaining to him the formality of the parade ground… That you marched across it, you didn’t walk and you most certainly didn’t play ball games on it.
That was when he suddenly crashed to attention. Sigi, not knowing quite why, followed suit. Fortunately, his time in the Hitler Youth had prepared him for this moment and in his best Jugend uniform he looked quite presentable.
“Who is this? A stranger on our parade-ground?”
“Jawohl Herr Major!” Harald said, his back ram-rod straight.
“He is your guest?” The major asked.
“Yes sir, I am hoping that he will be a recruit!”
“Ah yes, I heard rumours of a recruit… but I thought he was learning to fly… the young recruit.”
“This is the other one, the disciplined one… not such a natural flyer, but more disciplined.”
The discussion was serious, but the way the two men spoke suggested camaraderie rather than blind discipline. Sigi was impressed.
The major turned to Sigi… “So, why didn’t you jump when you had the chance? Scared?”
“No Sir! I wasn’t told to jump. Sir!”
“So? You could have jumped anyway… why didn’t you?”
This tested Sigi’s powers of explanation…
“It would have been…” He struggled to find the right word… “self-indulgent. Sir!”
He was rather pleased with that.
“Excellent… and how old are you?”
“Sixteen Sir! and a month!”
The major turned to Harald… “The next intake is in six weeks, three months training and three months experience with a stood-down unit… That would make him more or less seventeen… Make sure he takes the papers home for his parents to sign!”
“Yes, indeed sir! I’ll mark his application for your personal attention!”
The major was about to turn away when Sigi took his chance…
“Sir, Please… Would it be permitted for me to jump sir?”
The major looked surprised.
“An interesting question and one that I cannot answer… If I did I would be forced to say no. But as I haven’t answered, my only thought…” He turned to Harald… “is that the ‘chute would need to be totally reliable, an accident would be completely unacceptable!”
“Understood Herr Major! He will use mine, and… this discussion never happened Sir!”
“Indeed it did not!”
The major wandered off, pausing to light a cigarette. He sat down under a tree outside his office, to watch what happened next… a recruit who wanted to jump!
He watched the pair disappear, the boy was almost skipping with excitement.
Harald said… “What we need is a winch operator… If you were serious?”
“Oh, I was serious!” Then “I was so envious of Gott! Doing the right thing was so… unfair!”
“Come on, we need to put things right then. The major will be watching to see how quickly we find a balloon!”
They headed off looking for a winch operator.
Harald made for the Sergeants-Mess. He needed a winch-man he could trust, just in case.
It turned out not to be difficult. Harald mentioned a bottle of Schnapps and the winch-man asked when he was needed… “Now?” said Harald.
Sigi was wondering just exactly what he had got himself involved in… but he had been truthful about envying Gott his flight like a bird, the expression on his face as he floated down. In particular he envied him that swallow-dive out of the basket… That was what he really wanted, that dive!”
Harald in turn was mystified by these two boys.
His other recruits had been built up to their first jump carefully. They were expected to be terrified. The jump was mainly to see if they could overcome that fear. Discipline was the real test, not their ability to parachute. But… these two, one took his jump without asking, or even checking that his ‘chute was real. The other asked a major to approve an unauthorisable jump… He had been lucky in his choice of major!
Harald went to the parachute store, drew one of the ‘chutes used for students and then on the long table he pulled it out of it’s bag and carefully, straightened it and folded it and re-packed it. He saw nothing wrong with the original packing, but he had no intention of jumping with a ‘chute packed by one of the riggers for student use.
He gave his own ‘chute to Sigi and took the one he had re-packed for himself.
Together, more like comrades in arms than jump-instructor and schoolboy they took the long walk out to the jump field.
“This is it, Sigi! Now is your chance to say it was all a joke. Until we step into the basket you’re free to change your mind.”
“Why would I want to do that? Oh, yes, because I’m scared… Well that’s just as good a reason for not backing down. Anyway I want to be able to look stumble-bum Heinz in the eye when I meet him again in the shower-block!” Having said which Sigi ran off towards the winch and the balloon tethered above it.
The ascent took longer than previously. Harald had told the winch-man to send them up another two hundred feet compared with the standard training jump. This jump wasn’t to test Sigi, or to frighten him… it was to give him the jump of a lifetime… a first jump that was pure exhilaration. First jumps on this field were very seldom fun. Gott had his and if Sigi really wanted one , then this was for him.
“Right… When I shout Go! two steps and away… no hesitation… I shall be watching. Do you want a pat on the back to send you on your way?”
Sigi took a deep-breath, clipped his static-line on and waited while Harald checked it…
“No, no need for a pat on the back. Just shout Go, and I’ll be gone.”
He took his place opposite the gate and waited…
Harald waited a moment, for Sigi to compose himself…
Sigi took two brisk steps and then did what he had promised himself… the most perfect swallow-dive, arms outstretched, as if coming off the high-board at the pool. The static-line snaked out behind him… a jerk… and he was floating, floating slowly towards the ground.
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