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Fiction, © Copyright 2001, Jim Loy
My wife and I, and our two small children were encouraged to descend the stairs into the dark basement of our house.
"Sitzen Sie." The German soldier held an automatic weapon which pointed down at the dirt floor. I detected no tension in the man's demeanor. And so, I suspected that he was not going to kill us. I sat in the dirt. Welhelmina, my wife, sat. The children sat between us. "Sehr gut." He climbed the stairs and closed the trap door. We were enclosed in utter darkness.
Little Katrina quietly complained that she was frightened. Little Peter informed us that he was not. We heard the sound of many military boots over our heads. My wife spoke words of reassurance to the children, and to myself.
Soon the trap door reopened and I squinted at the light. The German soldier descended the stairs, carrying a lighted kerosine lamp and our picnic basket. He set the basket on the dirt floor in front of us. And he placed the lamp on the basket. He handed me a box of matches, and said in German, "Please do not burn the house down."
As he turned to leave, little Katrina said, "Vielen dank." I added my own belated thanks. In the basket were a jar of kerosine, two jars of water, a loaf of bread, half a sausage, and a small piece of cheese. We ate a fine meal. I had decided that we should eat all the food, as I suspected that we shared the basement with small animals. My suspicions were confirmed when a small mouse made a tentative appearance, sniffing here and there. We let him eat the few crumbs which had fallen to the dirt floor. Little Peter gave him a piece of bread, which he ran off with into a dark corner, perhaps to feed his own wife and children.
I pulled my pocket watch out of my pocket, and found that the glass face was broken and that the watch had stopped. Although the watch must have been broken when the soldiers took command of our house, I didn't remember any violence which might have broken it. Little Peter and I busied ourselves repairing the watch, as we were, after all, a clock repairman and his son. I set aside the broken glass. Peter produced his tiny pocket knife. I smiled when I thought that this knife, smaller (with the blade extended) than my little finger, was our only weapon, if a weapon were required. I pried off the back of the watch. Everything seemed to be in order. With the knife point, I pushed on a gear and the watch restarted. I then saw a tiny hair stuck between two of the gears. How in the world could a hair get inside a watch? I adjusted the time so that the hair was no longer between gears; it was somehow still attached to one of the gears. And Peter, with his tiny fingers, removed the hair. I snapped the watch back together, and placed it on the picnic basket.
Our German friend brought down blankets. I asked him what time it was, and I reset the watch.
We slept well that night. The picnic basket seemed to amplify the ticking of the watch. It was somehow a very reassuring sound.
We had been in the basement for five days, when we heard a rumbling, grinding noise. Peter correctly identified the sound as tanks. How do you distinguish the sound of a German tank from an American or British tank? We heard distant gunfire. We were apparently now on the front line. There were noises overhead, boots, voices, and some unidentified noises. Were the Germans still up there, or were these people American or British or Dutch? We listened, trying to identify some hint of their language. Then it became silent, mostly, except for the sound of tanks getting farther away.
That night, our German friend came down the stairs carrying a chair. He sat down in the chair. "You will be free soon. Just be patient. My friends and I (he pointed up at the ceiling) will be leaving soon. We are behind enemy lines, behind the American lines. There are Americans everwhere. We are trying to decide whether to try to make a run for the German lines or surrender." He chuckled. "The vote is currently two to two. Either way, we will be gone from here tonight. Just stay here for now. Sorry there is no more food." He left.
There was silence. We heard the distant rumble of artillery, or maybe thunder. I wondered how the Germans had finally voted.
After a long time, we heard people walking around upstairs, more boots. Certainly these were Americans. We had to make ourselves known eventually. I knocked three times on the trap door, and there was a loud gun shot. I ducked into a dark corner, getting entangled in a spider web.
From above, "Sorry about that," in English. "Bill here has an itchy trigger finger." I didn't exactly understand that. "Come up outa there real slow. We got you covered." After a tense moment, we were thanking everyone in our best imitation of English, and shaking hands. Tears were streaming down my face, and I even shook my wife's hand.
Later I heard that our German friend was in a hastily constructed prison near the edge of town. I asked if I could talk with him.
He and I did not talk very long. I handed him our picnic basket, which contained a fresh loaf of bread, half a sausage, and a large piece of cheese. He looked away and said in English worse than mine, "When this war is over, I will your family sometimes visit." I never saw him again.
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