I’ll See You Down There
His end could hardly have been more appropriate.
At 89 years old, this year’s Bastille Day had been one too many. When he collapsed after the excitement of the parade, the Legion rushed him to their own hospital.
It was time now for one final great adventure. It would be surprisingly gentle for a man whose life had been committed to killing.
Perhaps Death owed him that much.
In extreme old age Death sometimes comes as an old-man’s friend. In Gottfried’s case, Death came in the form of an eagle.
Lying in his hospital bed, eyes closed and at peace with himself, his body jerked… and he began to fall.
As he fell, an old instinct made him look up to check that his parachute opened safely.
There was no ‘chute. What there was made no sense, and yet it made perfect sense.
He was being held by the shoulders, by the talons of a huge golden eagle… The Fallschirmjägers’ eagle had come to take him home.
He looked down… Far below he could see Gerhard, Sigi and Harald waiting for him.
It had been a long wait. They had waited almost his whole life for this moment.
For a last time, he spread his arms in a swallow-dive, and shouted to them …
In the silence of the room, he heard a young boy’s voice cry out, bright with pleasure…
“I’ll see you down there!”
Gottfried was born at a most unfortunate time. It was only five years since Germany had resoundingly lost the Great War. That was the war that was not yet the First World War. To become the First it would have to wait until a Second foolish adventure on the part of Germany’s leaders.
The proudest of Europe’s nations and the unjustifiably proudest of its emperors had been brought low by the Great War. Kaiser Wilhelm was now in Holland, living in ignominy, exiled from the country and empire that he had once ruled. His pride and inability to recognise a mistake had cost England one in five of her young men, and had turned the USA into an industrial giant.
Both of these would lead to Germany’s undoing twenty years later.
The year that Gottfried was born was also the year that an obscure political party with an equally obscure leader made a first attempt to take power, in Munich. Adolf Hitler had won control of the NSDAP as early as 1919, enraged by the terms of the Versailles Treaty that had ended the Great War. But, it was in 1923 that he made his move.
The government of the Weimar Republic, the current version of Germany after the Great War, was weak. It felt weak because it continued to be humiliated by the terms of the Versailles Treaty.
The trouble was that no reasonable German could say that the communist and right wing parties like the NSDAP were wrong when they said that things in Germany needed to be put right. The victors of the 1914-18 war had made resentment universal and reasonable.
Whether the extremists meant poverty (the Great Depression started in 1929) or the loss of the iron and steel resources in Alsace-Lorraine, the loss of parts of Poland or the loss of the natural resources of the German Empire in Africa and the Pacific, the resentment was a reasonable response to Versailles.
But, in the long run, not being wrong would not make them right.
The powerful light of hindsight would show that the men who sat around the peace-tables after 1918 had set in hand an almost inevitable slide towards the deaths of another twenty five million people twenty years later. Someone once said that for evil to succeed it is only necessary for good men to do nothing… and for twenty years good men did virtually nothing, while evil men of all politics had a free hand to do as they wished.
The Allies had demanded 100 billion dollars in war reparations, that’s nearly ten trillion dollars at today’s values. Economically on her knees after a disastrous war, Germany would actually pay them five billion dollars, perhaps half a trillion today. It made recovery of her economy extremely difficult, and that made both right and left politics in Germany extremely effective.
This was the Germany that Gottfried was born into.
He was born to lower middle class parents, his father being a minor public health official. His birth coincided not just with a failed Nazi putsch in Munich but also with growing passive resistance against Versailles in the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heart-land. The action in the Ruhr would start Germany’s economic decline, and its slide towards hyperinflation.
He was six years old when Wall Street collapsed. That was the point at which the Great Depression collided with Germany’s chaotic economy. Politics could not survive the strain and when Gottfried was ten years old the German President Hindenburg finally admitted that the only course left to him was to appoint Adolf Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor.
Hitler did indeed sort things out. He wasn’t a man to take notice of a treaty. Soon there would be no more talk of reparations, German soldiers would once again march in the Ruhr and in the other areas of Germany that Versailles had forbidden to them.
Hitler brought Germany under control, saved the economy, built roads and… made the railways run on time.
He re-built her armed forces and re-established Germany’s position in the world.
He picked up a broken Germany and put her on her feet.
He did all those things, and went on to conquer and rule the whole of Europe, except for a small group of islands just off the coast. He missed those. They would cost him everything… even his life.
He achieved all those things in only seven years, but… it would only take another five years for him to lose it all again.
This time Germany would lie, not just broken, but broken in two.
In those seven years Gottfried would grow from a child to a young man. The next five he would spend, as did most young men of his generation, fighting to rescue the megalomaniac dreams of his Führer.
Those twelve years would shape him and guide him onto the path that would end in Paris, in Les Invalides, the great cathedral church of the bishop of the French Army.
This is the story of that path.
Paris, Bastille Day, 2007.
He dozed in his seat in the French President’s reviewing-stand.
They kept asking him if he was comfortable… Not too hot? Not too cold? Did he need a rug for his knees?
This they asked of a man who was there because he had fought… on Crete, the Russian Front, North Africa, Italy, Normandy, Germany… then North Africa again and eventually… Vietnam, or French Indo-China as it then was, but didn’t want to be.
After Vietnam he mostly fought bureaucrats, trained youngsters, jumped from planes… and marched.
As he dozed he pondered the merits of marching.
He had loved to march. It was a form of mantra… left-right… rechts-links… over and over.
While he marched the repetition had rested the mind. His feet might hurt, his back might hurt, but… his mind rested. There were other marches where men fell dead at the roadside… of hunger or a sudden bullet. He had mostly avoided those, but many of his comrades hadn’t.
People love to watch the precision of a parade, and today’s would be one of the best. He had been looking forward to it all year.
He regretted that there were no longer many really good military parades. The Nuremberg rallies and the Führer’s birthdays… now those had been truly great parades. Since 1945, there was May Day in Moscow and the marionettes of Indo-Chinese dictator states but…Bastille Day in Paris was probably the best there was in the free world, and today was Bastille Day, in Paris.
Today he was there because he had once again been invited to sit in the President’s reviewing stand.
Why him? Because he was the oldest… The oldest?
He was now the oldest Fallschirmjäger who was old enough to have once had a swastika in the talons of his diving eagle. He was perhaps also the oldest French Foreign Legionnaire major still on his feet… even if getting onto his feet required a little help now.
He was one of the few really old Fallschirmjäger who had no swastika in their eagle’s talons. Now the Fallschirmjäger were young men, an elite regiment of the modern Federal German army.
Like any military celebrity, his long life had given him a choice of uniforms to wear today, both German and French.
He had chosen the uniform of a Luftwaffe general. The Fallschirmjäger had been formed as a branch of the air-force, and that was an association that he stubbornly maintained.
He wore it because today the Fallschirmjäger 26th Air Assault Battalion were marching in the parade. He planned, with a little help from the men seated either side of him, to stand and salute them as they passed the reviewing stand. Their salute would be as much for him as for the French President.
As a legionnaire he could have chosen to wear the Legion’s white kepi, the Kepi Blanc.
He remembered with pride the day he was promoted from the recruit’s green beret to the Kepi Blanc.
Next year, God willing, he would wear his Kepi Blanc.
Admittedly, he hadn’t been a willing recruit for the Legion, more a pressed-man. But he had been recruited as an NCO. He had received his stripes as soon as he earned his white kepi. That had made up for a lot.
Leading men, looking after men, and killing men…
Those were the three things he had been trained to do, and he had spent his life doing all of them very well.
The Legion had been as good a place to do them as any after the shame of Germany’s defeat.
That was why he was also determined that he would stand to attention when the Legion marched past. The men either side could be relied upon to help him once again. He smiled to himself… He had always been able to rely on men helping him. It was a talent that helped a soldier survive.
The military men among his companions in the stand knew that he had marched here himself. They were too polite to mention or even recall that the first time he had marched down this avenue it had been as a German paratrooper. That had been the week when Paris fell, and Hitler came to celebrate the French defeat.
Years later, he had returned to Paris and Bastille Day, as an NCO in the French Foreign Legion. The Legion liked its NCOs to be German. They could be trusted to maintain discipline.
Now, in better times he had returned once again, dressed as a Fallschirmjäger. This time there were no swastikas. Europe was more or less united, and once again Germany was taking the lead.
That today he was there as a Luftwaffe general with Fallschirmjäger insignia was also a very personal acknowledgement to another Luftwaffe general. That man was long dead, but he was the man that he owed more to than any other, except, perhaps his old friend Harald.
Yes, perhaps it was Harald he owed most to. But, it was that Luftwaffe general whose authority had made it all possible… in another time, and another country.
This year, he had come to watch his men march. They were modern Germany’s equivalent of the SAS or SEALs. Today he would be a parachutist once more. Next year… if he made another year, he would come as a legionnaire, dressed as a Legion major…
Later they stood and watched, while the boys of one of France’s great choir schools sang the Marseillaise.
He knew who they were because a few years ago he had asked his neighbour in the stand. He had told his companion that they were a reminder of his lost youth, a youth spent singing songs like the Horst Wessel and the veterans’ Ich Hatt Ein Kameraden. It amused him that to sing the Horst Wessel was a criminal offence today in the modern Federal Germany.
Fifty, no sixty years ago, it was very different. People cheered as singing youngsters in Hitler Jugend uniforms marched past, maybe to the harvest, or just for the joy of marching and singing. Later they would need to sing to keep their spirits up.
He admired the choir’s discipline. As a soldier he approved of the dignified way they stood, their hands in the sleeves of their monk’s white habits. No-one fidgeted. He admired a choir school that could train boys to stand so still in the heat.
These boys were the pride of France, celebrities in their own right, individual stars, known by name across the world. Their celebrity was brief, like a mayfly… or a shooting-star. They would join the school at eight, become solo celebrities at perhaps eleven and then… the glorious treble voice would turn alto, then tenor and perhaps be bass at thirteen or fourteen. At fifteen they would need to leave the choir, to finish their baccalaureate in a more conventional school.
Their discipline, stillness… and fractured education reminded him of his own abrupt change of school. At fifteen he had moved from a conventional gymnasium to a Hitler-period Napola. People had referred to the NSDAP-run Napolas as schools for gauleiters. They provided an exceptional education in leadership for the select few who were destined for high command in Hitler’s Third Reich.
He still felt immense gratitude to the men who had taken his career in hand; the parachute instructor who had talent-spotted him, the Luftwaffe general who had sponsored him for a Napola education and the Fallschirmjäger major who had prepared him for an exceptional career in the Luftwaffe.
It was a career that happened as they had all predicted, but in a way that none of them could have expected.
A career with strange twists and turns, it had brought him to where he sat today.
He realised with a sigh that one of the boys reminded him of someone. It took a few moments for him to realise who… The memory came to him across sixty years of loss.
When he realised who it was, a tear rolled down his cheek. He made a conscious effort to pull himself together… He had no respect for old men who cried. It had happened too many years ago! It was a bit late to start crying now.
He had cried on the day, when it had happened, but not since… well, not often, and not in daylight.
This was no time to start being sentimental.
Everyone died… It was how and why you died that mattered.
He was here today because he had postponed death longer than most did who followed his trade. Death was only ever postponed. It had only ever been as far away as the next order from a superior-officer… or the needs of a comrade.
Now however, he received no orders, and he gave no orders. He didn’t do as he was told, but almost always did as he was asked.
He enjoyed life. He was well looked after. His life alternated between summers in a Luftwaffe care-home in Germany and winters in a Foreign Legion hospital in southern France.
People said he was a celebrity. They invited him to events like this. They even interviewed him for television.
Well on his way to ninety years old, he was walking-history, even if he no longer walked far or very fast. But, he stubbornly refused all offers of a wheel-chair.
They told him how special and unusual he was… as they tucked a rug around his knees.
It was a little sobering that people thought him special simply because he wasn’t dead! But, to be fair, that wasn’t how they meant it.
Despite his frailty, life was good… and, if the occasional boy reminded him of a long lost comrade, well that was nice too.
To have never lived the adventure, that would have been sad. But… he had lived it.
He had lost friends and even lovers. He missed them but he didn’t regret them.
Life was good, and he was determined that it should last as long as it possibly could.
But… the dreams…
Sometimes he woke in pleasurable but fleeting arousal… Sometimes he woke in a cold-sweat.
Dreams were fickle friends, the only friends who had been fickle.
Gottfried had been lucky in his choice of friends. Long before Gerhard, his first serious lover, there had been Sigi, and then there was Harald. Sigi had always been there, but Harald had dropped into his life with absolutely no warning.
When it happened, he hadn’t realised the significance of Harald’s arrival in his life, nor that his life was about to change forever.
Oranienburg, Germany. 1938.
The man watched… astonished and scared. The boy was running. Every now and then he stopped and did a hand-stand and then ran on again. What was remarkable was not what he did, but that he did it on the top of a wall that was twice as tall as a man.
The man knew, only too well, what could happen to the boy if he slipped and fell.
Then… that was exactly what the boy did… he stumbled, but rather than fall…
The boy jumped!
The fall seemed to take forever. Then the boy hit the ground. With his feet together and his knees bent, he rolled… his legs folded up under him to absorb the shock of the fall. His hip reached the ground… and he rolled… It was all so fast… He rolled from hip to shoulder, to the other shoulder… and then as fast as he had fallen, he rolled on… back up onto his feet.
The man ran towards him, expecting a bleeding, crying child. The boy he found was grinning cheekily.
“I bet you couldn’t do that!” the boy said.
“No, but… would you teach me?” the man said.
Stendal, Germany, 1938.
He rose early, skipped breakfast and went straight to the basic-training hangars.
Stendal, sixty miles to the west of their main base at Oranienburg, was where recruits learned the fundamental skills that they would need.
The Fallschirmjäger were new, an elite parachute corps, Germany’s finest soldiers, so the regiment said. They were newer than the SS, and very different. Hermann Göring had wanted to create an elite force to rival Heinrich Himmler’s SS. As head of the Luftwaffe he chose his parachutists to defend Adolf Hitler.
Compared with their rivals in the SS, the Fallschirmjäger were totally different. The Luftwaffe chose Fallschirmjäger for their courage and intelligence… not for their blond good looks!
For a start, most of them weren’t blond. In fact they were deliberately chosen to not look particularly German. Their wartime role would be to parachute behind the front-line, to blend with the countryside and disrupt enemy communications. They were to parachute ahead of an advance and capture the civilian leaders, to ease transition to German rule. For that role they were chosen for their intelligence, they needed an ability to speak and learn foreign languages.
Intelligence they needed… killing and demolition skills they could be taught.
That’s why, unlike the SS, blond good-looks and a uniform designed by Hugo Boss were irrelevant to the Fallschirmjäger.
The first skill they had to learn was to jump with a peculiarly badly designed parachute.
To hit the ground like a sack of potatoes as a result of a bad design of parachute was a poor reward when you considered that they already stood a high chance of reaching the battlefield dead… shot by the enemy while they slowly drifted down.
The planners would allow for that by dropping twice as many men as they really needed… until Crete. Crete would change everything.
But, I get ahead of myself.
The hangar he entered was where recruits learned how to fall, hopefully without injury, but always without hesitation.
Injury in war would reduce their value as fighting men. If it happened then it was simply bad-luck and beyond their control. With self-control and determination an injury might well be ignored.
But…any hesitation on the other hand was worse, it was unacceptable. Hesitation could disrupt a landing.
To be seen to hesitate rendered a recruit useless. It destined him for rejection to an ordinary infantry unit… or in extreme cases to a labour battalion.
The fundamental problem for these early Fallschirmjäger was that falling without injury was almost impossible. German parachutes had not yet reached the level of sophistication that later soldiers would have. They were still simply a way for a pilot in trouble to reach the ground in one piece, more or less. They required no skill, the pilot or parachutist had absolutely no influence on how and where they would land.
Their ‘chutes didn’t have rigging lines rising from a shoulder harness. That meant that they couldn’t hold onto the lines above their head and achieve some degree of steering and control. Instead there was just a single line rising from the middle of the jumper’s back, so that he dangled on the end, spinning and wobbling in a vaguely down-facing position until the ground came up to meet him.
Their orders were to land on elbows and knees… knees could be padded but hands were vulnerable. If you didn’t break both wrists on impact you had done well.
Compared with this scientifically developed system, the fruit of three thousand years of Teutonic warfare, what the child had done the previous night was truly remarkable. A jump-instructor for the Fallschirmjäger was in a position to appreciate the child’s skill. What that child had done was not only remarkable, it could be of military importance.
That was why he had missed breakfast to climb into the mock-up of a Junkers fuselage. He went to the door where the trainees would stand, ready to leap out and fall to an impact that not all of them would walk away from. In each intake a few would need to be fed by their comrades. Both wrists in plaster made eating difficult.
That was also why hesitation was so great a crime in the eyes of the regiment. There was every good reason to hesitate… only the best, the bravest and most disciplined of men simply jumped when told to.
He tried to visualise exactly what the boy had done… He had been leaning slightly away from the wall as he fell… His feet were tight together and his knees were bent.
He adopted that posture and instead of jumping face down towards the piled mats as he was trained to, he sort of hopped out, falling more or less vertically… knees bent.
He hit the ground and… collapsed! The roll didn’t happen, there was no impetus to tumble, just a … whumph… collapsed like a sack of potatoes slipping from a grocer’s hoist.
Winded, he rose, dusted his uniform smock and thought about it. He went up and tried it again… more tilt, less whumph, but still no tumble. In half an hour he jumped six times… He never managed to achieve the grace that the boy had.
To be fair though, both wrists were still intact and the six leaps had taken a lot less out of him than the conventional method would have. Clearly the idea had promise, but there was something missing.
He decided not to risk any more outward lean, it helped the tendency to tumble but was putting too much strain on his ankles… To achieve lean at all when dangling would be difficult.
Clearly the boy knew something he didn’t.
He decided that he had given it enough of a go for one morning, the recruits would be arriving soon. He didn’t want them to see their instructor jumping in what appeared to be a much more sensible way than was demanded of them… or see that he landed in more of a … whumph than an instructor’s dignity and authority demanded.
Tomorrow was another day, and by then he might have had a chance to ask the boy what he was doing wrong… what it was that the child was doing right!
You know how it is… watched pots never boil… and if you are watching for someone, they don’t appear. It was nearly a week before he saw him again. This time the boy was walking along the top of the wall on his hands. When he eventually fell it really wasn’t as elegant or soft a landing as last time, and he was still sitting on the ground, rubbing his grazed elbow, when the man got to him.
“That was one hell of a fall, son… how come you aren’t dead?” He said quietly… It seemed time someone pointed out the likely outcome of the boy’s antics.
“I’m not hurt… I never hurt myself… I’m really careful!” The boy said, while rubbing his clearly hurt elbow.
The man smiled. “I don’t think that walking on your hands on the top of that wall counts as being careful… I thought you were going to land on your head… and kill yourself!”
“Actually, I was being really careful… It’s a game till it goes wrong and then… the moment I know I’ve lost it… everything changes… It all goes slowly, while I sort myself out.” The kid replied very seriously.
“But, you fell off the top head-first… You could have killed yourself!” The man spoke seriously, this kid needed to understand that he wasn’t immortal.
The boy was unimpressed by the warning…
“That time I was upside down, so I didn’t push clear of the wall, I stayed close to it. I put my hand out to the wall… to turn me upright while I fell. It wasn’t dangerous… but it did hurt!”
The man liked his mischievous grin.
“I hit my elbow on the top of the wall this time. Once I was falling properly I was perfectly safe.. It was turning myself the right way up that was painful!”
The man grinned back. Clearly he wasn’t going to win… The kid knew more about falling safely than he ever would.
Perhaps… Maybe, that made the boy incredibly valuable. At this moment, he might be the most important child in Germany… if only to the Fallschirmjäger
“Well so long as you have it all under control… and it only hurts… sometimes.”
“Most of the time it doesn’t hurt at all… most of the time I get to walk away… not even limping, or rubbing my elbow.” He laughed at the man’s expression.
“What do you do? What sort of soldier?” The boy asked suddenly.
“Me? I jump too. Like you I try not to get hurt when I hit the ground. The difference is that I get paid to do it!” The man laughed.
“You what?” The boy looked at the man as if he were mad… “That’s silly, why would a grown-up jump off walls?”
“Not walls! … out of airplanes!”
“Out of airplanes? And that’s not silly?” Then a pause for thought… “Are you some special sort of soldier?” He was perfectly prepared to be impressed by soldiers.
“I’m in the Fallschirmjäger, Reichsmarschall Göring’s new parachute regiment. We drop on the enemy using parachutes… to take them by surprise!” He said with a wolfish grin.
The boy listened with huge eyes.
“You’re a Fallschirmjäger? That’s… wow!” Finally… at last… the boy was speechless…
Then he held out his hand. The man equally solemnly took the boy’s hand and shook it firmly as two men who fall from great heights should… with respect.
“Harald.” The man said. “Gottfried,” The boy said… “but my friends call me Gott.”
They heard the church clock sound five-o-clock…
“Mama will have food on the table… I must run… but wow! A Fallschirmjäger! Wait till I tell my friends in the Jugend bann!”
He started to walk backwards, waving…
“Wait!” The man said… “Will you be around tomorrow? I wanted to ask you about the way you jumped off the wall.”
“Yes, sir… I’ll be here, four-o-clock, straight after school!”
He ran off, backwards… still laughing…
Then he did a sudden back-flip.
The man watched and envied his youthful exuberance…
‘What a beautiful kid!’ He thought.
The boy was full of his news at the dinner table, but his mother was worrying about the meat-loaf, while his father was dividing his attention between a dislike of the meat-loaf and a dislike of his group-leader in the local Party. Neither of them took much notice of the boy’s news. They should have. It was going to shape the rest of their lives. Everyone in that family kitchen would be affected by what had happened that day… particularly the boy.
His excitement had to last until later, after dinner when, after drying the dishes he was released to find his friend Siegfried.
Sigi and Gott… inseparable friends since kindergarten… perhaps before that… it was so long that it was hard to remember.
“Sigi, Sigi… I’ve met a man!” Perhaps Gott wasn’t making himself as clear as he had intended!
“Mein Gott!” It was a very old joke… “You’ve met a man… so where does that leave me?”
They had been friends for so long that jokes on dangerous ground just required a glance round to make sure they were alone. There were no taboos, nothing they couldn’t discuss… Gott’s dad’s drinking, Sigi’s mama’s boyfriend… even his sister’s back-street abortion. These things happened in the dysfunctional world of Nazi Germany in the mid 1930’s. They weren’t talked about openly, but Sigi and Gott were close enough to be able to support each other…
Love? Yes of course they loved each other, and would have said so if someone asked… but they wouldn’t have meant what you and I would mean. Love? They would die for each other if need arose… They would walk down the street with their arms round each other’s shoulders, but if you suggested that they were boyfriends… well that would be a joke too far.
But, between Gott and Sigi the joke was acceptable, so Gott picked it up and ran with it…
“I’ve told Mama and Papa about him, but I don’t think they understood how important he is!”
“Already… and you’ve only just met him?”
The boys were falling about with laughter, passers-by smiled at their obvious closeness and wondered what had so tickled their sense of humour. The boys themselves weren’t exactly sure… Certainly the idea of Gott falling for a grown man was at the very least hilarious!
Eventually the joke ran down… They didn’t understand enough of what the joke implied to be able to carry it much further… It was Sigi that ran out of steam…
“So this man of yours, what’s so special?” He asked more seriously… This was Gott’s new friend so it mattered to Sigi.
“He’s a Fallschirmjäger!” Gott said, with awe in his voice.
“Honestly… He saw me fall off the gas-works’ wall and wanted to know why I wasn’t hurt. He says that when they jump they have to land on their hands and knees, and they get hurt more often than not. He says the way I landed was special… I told him that it only hurt if I hit my elbow, and I didn’t hit my elbow if I could help it!”
“So, what?… He wants you to teach him how to fall? That’s crazy… If he’s a Fallschirmjäger!”
Gott looked equally bemused.
“Well that’s what he said!” He said doubtfully.
“Any chance he’s just after getting in your pants? Like Heinie?” Sigi whispered.
Heinie had been their Jungvolkführer when they were twelve.
“I don’t think so… we knew what Heinie was after… the way he hung around us… This guy just seemed really interested in the way I roll when I fall. Then today I didn’t get it right, I was showing off a bit and hit my elbow… He ran up but he didn’t try anything on… Honestly, he’s just interested… and… he’s a Fallschirmjäger!”
Clearly, in Gott’s world a Fallschirmjäger was such a manly figure that the idea of one who fancied boys was completely… well the two didn’t go together… did they?
Sigi stilled looked doubtful… “Well just be careful… Heinie got nasty when we tried to say no.”
He didn’t want to pour cold-water on his friend’s excitement… then… “and if there are any trips to his barracks or the airfield, count me in! That way I can watch your back!”
Gott smiled… “My back?… or my bottom?”
Sigi said something rude and started chasing his friend… across the wasteland and into the trees.
When they re-appeared half an hour later the two boys were flushed and quieter. Being best friends who shared everything had its advantages. When their friends talked about how much or how little they could get from the local girls, the two friends smiled and said that they were too busy with school and the Jugend… the Hitler Youth that they were now old enough to join.
As far as the pair were concerned, girls could wait until girls wanted them as much as they wanted the girls.
Although neither would have admitted it… it was a relief that girls didn’t yet pursue them… They had each other… occasionally and as often as their young hormones demanded… so, girls could wait… one day maybe they would matter.
At the moment?… They had each other. But now, Gott had a Fallschirmjäger, and Sigi felt just the tiniest bit vulnerable.
“Will you introduce me to him?” He asked tentatively.
“ ’Course I will!”
“OK then… See you tomorrow then?”
“Yes… but… six o-clock… I’m meeting Harald straight after school!”
Sigi felt a bit put out… already the Fallschirmjäger was coming between them. He didn’t feel jealous… He wouldn’t have recognised it if he had. He did feel worried about it though. He remembered the trouble with Heinie and how awkward that had been until their fathers had seen to Heinie and his interests.
Heinie, it should be said, was still undergoing corrective-training, at one of the Party’s first concentration camps, in a converted factory in Oranienburg town centre. At first they would, with some satisfaction, see him being marched off to work. Later, when Gott was 13, he had been moved to Sachsenhausen when the town centre camp was closed. The Jungvolk now had a new leader, who was considerably more discreet, no different, but more discreet… He carefully avoided Sigi and Gott, which was after all what their fathers had wanted.
The next evening Harald was there waiting for him when he arrived from school.
“Gott!” he said to himself with a smile. There was a great feeling of relief and satisfaction when the little figure appeared, doing a celebratory hand-spring at the sight of his Fallschirmjäger friend. He gave the man a formal heel-clicking bow, and a firm handshake. Then he looked embarrassedly at his hands, dirty from his roadside gymnastics. The man found this very appealing and hastened to show him that his own hands were scarred with dirt from teaching recruits the basics of their craft… Today that had involved digging slit-trenches.
He had equipped himself with a bag of boiled sweets to help their conversation along.
“So, how did you learn to fall safely from high walls?” He asked.
The reply was ridiculously logical… “By falling off low walls!” The boy replied with a laugh. Then more seriously…
“Actually it’s much easier to fall off high walls. Once you know what you are doing. The thing is it takes quite a bit of height to give you time to sort yourself out. Fall from a low wall and you’re likely to hit a knee or shoulder or something, but from a good height you can get yourself sorted out like a cat does, and land right way up.”
“But what about the greater crunch when you hit the ground…?”
“It’s just a matter of learning to roll… When the Japanese Prince Chichibu came to meet the Führer, he brought a Jiu-Jitsu team with him to give public shows. Papa was invited to a display so I went too, and I saw the way they rolled when they fell and tried to do the same thing when I fell doing gymnastics at school… it worked, and well… walls came later when I was better at gymnastics. Once I could do twists in the air in the gym it was easy to turn right way up when I fell off walls.” At that the boy stopped to breathe.
“So, could you teach me to fall like that?” Harald asked.
“Yes, if you don’t mind getting hurt until you get it right! Here with the wall? Did you mean?”
“No, I think I’d feel happier in our training-hangar with some soft mats to land on! I may be a parachutist, but I’m not completely mad!”
The training hangar was a considerable distance out of town, and taking the boy there would require most of a day. There was no real reason to worry about his school… At that point in German history, if a Fallschirmjäger told a school master that he needed a pupil at his airfield, then the teacher would ask “when?” It was a long time since the needs of the Party came second to the needs of education.
It was the boy’s father that was Harald’s priority. A few discreet questions had revealed that the father was a party leader. Admittedly he was only a minor local leader but nevertheless he was senior enough to not take chances with!
Not taking chances resulted in an afternoon coffee with the father. He was a self-important rotund man with a moustache that would have made him look silly if it hadn’t… well enough said… this was a Germany in which jokes about moustaches had caused men to disappear.
When told that his son had a trick when landing that might be applicable to the training of parachutists, the father puffed himself up to twice his importance and said that he had been encouraging his son to develop his gymnastic skills… to help him achieve seniority in the Hitler Youth. He said that Gottfried was now 14, nearly 15 and that the speed at which he rose through the ranks of the Jugend would mark him as having leadership potential… or not.
In the modern Germany it didn’t really matter where you led, so long as you were leading. Lack of direction was perhaps a virtue. It demonstrated that you were leading for the sake of the Party, and not because you had a private agenda. It was best not to have a private agenda… People disappeared for no other reason than that their agenda wasn’t Party policy!
His father was a subtle negotiator, not a thug. The NSDAP was the name they used themselves, Nazis was what their enemies called them. The NSDAP then, was a middle-class led organisation. The thugs on the street were not party members, but were controlled by the teachers, doctors and civil-servants who were. Gott’s father was one of the latter, and he was good at what he did.
They discussed what benefit to the boy lay in his helping the man. That was when a bright idea came to both of them almost simultaneously…
The father had recently been asked to talk to his son’s Jugend-bann on the subject of his work… public health, and his party work… public health policy. Neither of these had particularly enhanced his son’s standing among his peers… shuffled feet and glazed expressions suggested that the risk of food poisoning when not cooking sausages properly had failed to hold the boys’ attention.
But… a Fallschirmjäger would be able to excite the boys of the bann, with talk of how to present themselves for the best chance of selection as recruits, their training, strategy and tactics… Perhaps they could arrange a visit for the boys to an airfield, to watch men jumping from balloons… If his boy could be seen to have organised that it would make him very popular.
Yes, that they decided was what Harald would do in exchange for a few days of the boy’s time.
Nobody asked Gottfried what he thought, and as it happened, that didn’t matter. The man was all the boy could think about at that moment… the uniform, the Fallschirmjäger…
All that mattered to Gott was that he had acquired such a man as a friend!
Stendal, Germany. 1938.
That was how the two of them came to be standing in the training hangar on the following Sunday morning, just the boy and the soldier… His father was off being official and officious at some Party-rally.
Gott had travelled on the back of Harald’s motorbike. In those far off times he could enjoy the feel of the wind in his hair. A later generation would wear a helmet and the generation after that… for them the back of a motorbike would seem far too dangerous to risk. This was a more adventurous time, young men were going to die in their millions, and not on the back of a motorbike.
“So how do you want to do this?” The man asked.
“Well… You show me what you do… and I’ll… Well, you show me yours first.” He giggled. He was old enough to understand the unintended humour in what he had said. The man understood too, and found it unexpectedly disturbing.
Harald moved away hurriedly and climbed up into the mock aircraft.
“First, I’ll jump the way we’re supposed to do it, and then I’ll show you my attempt to copy what you did on the wall.” He shouted down to the small figure standing by the landing mats.
He bent down and strapped on his knee pads, then he took a step back, strode forward and without hesitation threw himself forward… and an alarming time later landed on elbows and knees. He stood up rubbing his wrists…
“It’s a more controlled drop than from a real plane, but your wrists still hurt most times!” He said
The boy was honestly appalled… It seemed such a silly way to do it…
“Why do you land face down on hands and knees? Why don’t you aim to land on your feet like I do?”
“It’s the parachute harness… It’s in the middle of your back, so it lowers you mostly face down, like a parcel.”
“Have the people who designed it ever used it?” The boy asked in wonderment.
“Probably not!” was the answer.
“Can you show me how you would do it?” Harald asked.
Gott looked doubtful… “Yes, but I can’t do it as if I was held by the harness…”
“No, that’s alright… Just do it your way, as if you were coming off the wall… we’ll worry about the harness later.”
“Do you want knee pads?” Harald asked.
“No thanks, they’ll just get in the way!
“What about a helmet?”
“I bet you haven’t got one small enough!” Gott laughed…
The laugh echoed in the hangar… A child’s laugh seemed odd in such a place.
“Is it alright for me to climb up now?” Gott asked, with more enthusiasm than seemed rational.
“Go ahead… just be careful!”
“If I was being careful, I’d be at home with a book!” Gott shouted over his shoulder as he started to clamber up into the fuselage.
He appeared at the door and looked down… “Ready?” he called.
Harald held his breath and gestured for him to start… If it wouldn’t have defeated the whole purpose of the morning he would have closed his eyes. As it was, he was pretty sure that he was more frightened than the boy!
Gott disappeared from sight… and then without the slightest hesitation appeared at the door at a run, skipped on the threshold and appeared to rise slightly. He fell feet first at a slight lean. As he hit the mat his knees buckled and he rolled, untidily but sufficient to save his head from impact.
When he got up he was limping and rubbing his shoulder…
“Ouch!” He said, more or less seriously… “That was not a great success!” He limped off the mats.
“Give me a minute and I’ll have another go… more carefully!”
“Are you sure? We can have a coffee first.” Harald offered him a way out.
“Schnapps would be more help!” Gott laughed at the idea… “Schnapps would at least make it less painful!”
They both laughed. Recruits were strongly discouraged from using alcohol to dull the impact.
Gott climbed back up, stood more calmly in the door and then jumped… as carefully as he possibly could. He had few illusions about the “ouch” that waited on impact!
In fact his landing was a little better but he was hopping on one foot as he left the mat.
“Did you twist it?” Harald asked… thinking of what he would tell the short fat official when he carried Gott home!
“No, I felt it going so I took my weight off it… It’ll calm down in a minute.”
They sat and thought about it, and drank a Coca Cola… Germany was not yet at war with America… Coca Cola was still the favourite national drink, Fanta would need to come later.
“So what’s the difference between the fuselage and the gasworks wall I wonder?” They said more or less the same thing at the same time, grinned and shook hands.
“I was thinking about that as I fell!” Gott smiled… “ I think it’s the mats… come on!”
He stood up and with his limp almost forgotten went across to the training mats and started pulling them out of the way. Harald was frankly appalled!
“Seriously? You want to jump without mats… that’s crazy!”
“No, jumping without a good reason would be crazy… You are my good reason… So help me move these mats… Then I’ll explain what was going wrong!”
Gott was excited. He knew what had gone wrong and he was certain that he knew how to put it right.
With the mats out of the way, and the not-yet-blood-stained concrete bare beneath the aircraft door, Harald was more worried than ever!
“So, why is this safer?” He asked.
“Oh, I didn’t say it was safer… It’s just more likely to be a successful landing!” Gott said with a smile, working on Harald’s nervousness.
“Alright, so why should I let you try without mats?”
“Because you’re too slow to catch me!” Gott scrambled up into the plane.
Harald gave up on rational adult thought.
When Gott appeared in the door he sat down on the edge to continue the discussion.
“As my ankle started to turn I realised that the real problem was not the height but what I was landing on. These mats are too soft and too lumpy… They grab your foot and hold it rigid so that it can’t roll sideways. I need to be able to keep my feet together and then pivot sideways. Let me try it without mats. Afterwards we can think about how to do it with mats… just to keep you happy!” Gott laughed at the expression on his older friend’s face.
Having failed to raise a smile from below… Gott stood up… Actually, just to show off, he did a backwards-roll onto his feet inside the plane. Then he came to the door and stood quietly…
“Ready?”… and he jumped, feet tight together, his body slightly tilted to the right…
He landed just as he had by the gasworks… his knees buckled, he rolled down the right side of his body, continued into a roll tucking his head in and then rolled on and up onto his feet.
“That… is how to do it!” He said triumphantly… “It was the mats that caused the problem!”
Harald grabbed him and hugged him… “You’re alright? Honestly?”
Then he stepped back hurriedly… “I’m sorry!” He said. “I was so scared for you!”
“Scared.. a Fallschirmjäger scared? Say that more quietly… the English might hear!”
Gott was feeling six feet tall!
“Once I had complete control over the landing there was no problem… The trick is in the roll. Once I could control the roll I knew that I was safe!”
Saying that he ran for the ladder into the plane and just to show it hadn’t been an accident he did it again, but this time, like the first time he did it at a run, without hesitation at the door.
Harald thought to himself… ‘If only we had a thousand boys like this!’
This time he hugged Gott, and Gott didn’t pull away…
He was happy to feel the approval that the Fallschirmjäger showed for what he had done.
“You’re the best recruit we’ve ever had… we’ll ever have… I’m just sorry you’re too young for me to sign up… otherwise you wouldn’t be going home today!”
The remaining question was how to turn what the boy could do into something that would help his regiment win battles. But, that could wait.
“It’s time for lunch… come and meet the others.”
For Harald this had been a remarkable morning. For Gott it had been a great adventure… and a man that he now admired beyond reason respected him… could life get any better? He couldn’t wait to tell Sigi how well the morning had gone. But, his stomach rumbled.
“Lunch sounds good, but first we must put the mats back… We can’t have the Fallschirmjäger falling over them and hurting themselves!” Gott said.
He was still a kid at heart.
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